Catherine Deneuve, like Jeanne Moreau, is a French icon who defies age, demographics and changing waistlines. At 68, she may no longer be the ingénue from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but she is far from the matron Simone Signoret became in her declining years. In her new film, Potiche, which reunites her with youthful director François Ozon, she’s juicy as an overripe peach. Maybe it’s the wigs.
Potiche–which translates as a vase or other objet d’art of no value or practical use, one that is usually placed on a shelf to be admired and avoided–is also a derogatory word that means “trophy wife,” a term usually reserved for mistresses of French politicians. In this context, it definitely applies to Suzanne Pujol (Ms. Deneuve), the dull, submissive mother and housebound suburban wife of a tyrannical industrialist who runs her father’s umbrella factory. You get the feeling from the moment of her entrance, in a red jogging suit with her hair in rollers, that Suzanne longs to hang up her apron and dance at Regine’s. It is the spring of 1977, a time when French women were reading magazine articles about Women’s Lib and the dilemma of suppressed middle-aged women and forming revolutionary ideas of their own. After 30 years of marriage, Suzanne has little to occupy her time apart from her indifferent husband, Robert (a bombastic caricature by scene-stealing farceur Fabrice Luchini); a grown son and daughter who ignore her; two grandchildren who don’t need her; and her garden and needlepoint. Suddenly the employees at the umbrella factory stage a workers’ strike and take the hateful Robert hostage. Appealing to Maurice Babin, the communist mayor and a man with whom she once had a torrid affair when he stopped to change a flat tire on her car, Suzanne thinks she has solved the labor dispute and saved the family business, but the stress gives Robert a heart attack and he is unable to negotiate. Now it’s the “potiche” who takes over.
Babin (played with amusing panache by Gérard Depardieu) becomes Suzanne’s rival in a tug of war for the factory workers’ loyalty, although he still carries a big torch for her himself. The triangle (newly liberated Suzanne, outraged Robert and lovesick Babin) grows to plot-thickening dimensions. To stir the fudge even more, director Ozon introduces subplots about blackmail, endless deceptions, the mysterious identity of the father of the working-class girl engaged to Suzanne’s doltish son and the flamboyant hysterics of Robert’s secretary-mistress. Since this is a farce of musical chairs, it is only fitting that Suzanne ends up running for the French Parliament in a colorful campaign replete with Gallic production numbers. Nothing can stop her now.
Ms. Deneuve has been directed by everyone from François Truffaut to Roman Polanski, but she has gone on the record saying she has a special rapport with Mr. Ozon (the 2002 film 8 Women remains a classic). He brings out such a loopy delicacy in her that she shines–a charming, witty centerpiece from start to finish. Potiche might not be her most demanding film, but she makes even its most farcical elements as moving as they are capricious. Delightfully relevant, she gets her best role in years, and she plays it to the hilt.
Running time 103 minutes
Written by Pierre Barillet, Jean-Pierre Grédy, François Ozon
Directed by François Ozon
Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini