Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Feb 14, 2011 11:03 am 
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Trophy wife strikes back

Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu together again and both in good form: that's enough to sell this crowd-pleasing candy-colored comedy from a boulevard-theater source directed by François Ozon, who here returns to more mainstream fare (not unrelated to his 2002 8 Women) after some artier, more serious, movies. This won't grab audiences the way Swimming Pool and Under the Sand did, but it goes down easy. It's an enjoyable double-take just to watch the two-pack-a-day glamor-puss Deneuve in the opening scene jogging through the woods in a pink sweat suit. Later she does a slow dance with Depardieu at a louche club called Ba-Da-Boum, and at the end, she sings.

Ozon works from a play by Pierre Barilletand Jean-Pierre Grédy to film this Seventies-era story about a "trophy wife" (potiche) used to jogging and writing little nature poems who takes over management of the family umbrella factory when her mean husband antagonizes all the workers during a strike and needs to take a break. Nothing profound here, but the director has pumped up the play effectively by making lesser characters stronger, adding on a longer ending, and giving an old romance some more serious overtones. Since that romance involves the two characters played by the aforementioned Deneuve and Depardieu the casting also ups the ante for a global market.

Suzanne (Deneuve) is sweet and beautiful, but her husband Robert Pujol (Fabrice Lucchini, less witty and nastier than usual), who runs the company she inherited and has a 45% ownership of it, gives her nothing but rudeness in return, and cheats on her with his secretary, Nadège (Karin Viard). He's as much a tyrant at home as he is at the factory. They have a grown daughter and a son. Farrah-Fawcett-haired Joëlle (Judith Godrèche), who has a long-distance boyfriend, emerges as the right-winger. Laurent (Jérémie Renier), obviously but undeclaredly gay, is more of a leftie, but not an activist. Renier is a little old for his role, but he wears his god-awful tight outfits and understatedly fey mannerisms like the pro he is. Godrèche is appealing as the exploited secretary who finds her feminist side in the anti-Pujol new regime of Suzanne.

The plot, which a reviewer called "feminism lite," milks a time when communists got 20% of the French vote (Depardieu's character Maurice Bagin is the provincial town's red mayor), factory workers were striking right and left and women's lib was in full swing. But there's a retro element: Suzanne reminisces about how her father could run the factory for forty years without a strike, and her main liberation is to reveal she was pretty promiscuous back in her Fifties youth, so Laurent isn't really Pujol's kid, and when he switches from his girlfriend to a boyfriend (Ozon's unemphatic twist), the boyfriend may be his half-brother.

This somehow hasn't the edge of Chabrol's 2007 Girl Cut in Two, a story about sexual machinations among provincial bigwigs, but the 1977 setting allows for various charms. Without overemphasizing bell bottoms and big hair, Ozon has fun with very nice period style opening credits and outfits and colors and hairstyles that keep shifting throughout.

Depardieu has done the weary pro before of late, most memorably in Xavier Giannol's The Singer, but his presence here makes the film about worker as well as female empowerment (there's not much of a look at the actual factory workers), and because he and Suzanne has a brief romantic fling, when she calls him in to help placate the workers, it reawakens a sense of romantic wistfulness Ozon turns up without overplaying it too much. Altogether the director's new take on the play apparently adds depth and removes cheap shots, though Lucchini's character remains a stick figure, if a pungent one. Anybody who has reveled in Lucchini's virtuoso hyper-articulateness will find him underused as this tinpot misogynist, as he was in the mediocre US-released comedy The Girl from Monaco. He did get good casting as the lawyer sibling in 2010 in Arnaud Paumelle's interesting unwanted immigrant story, Les invités de mon père, which has not gotten a Stateside viewing.

In the original pley, Pujol comes back revived from a vacation, takes over the factory as before, and that's that. The trajectory of boulevard theater is to titillate its bourgeois Parisian audiences by exploring all possible transgressions, "social, familial, emotional, political" (Ozon's own words), then take things back to pretty much where they started. Ozon's tweaking of the play alters that, folding its conservatism into a creamy soufflé with more feminism added. After all Ségolène Royal did give Sarkozy a run for his money in the French elections. Here, Susanne has a grand run as a warmer, more indulgent manager of the umbrella factory, with Laurent running the design branch (and doing Kandinsky brollies). In a more contemporary note, Joëlle is proposing layoffs and outsourcing, prompted by her neoliberal boyfriend.

Ozon's expanded Potiche has a new last act in which Joëlle sides with daddy in a vote so he gets back control fo the factory, but Suzanne, after an unsatisfying return stint as trophy wife, decides to enter politics and becomes an MP -- who will be working with old flame Babin (Depardieu). But everyone loves her not for feminist reason so much as out of nostalgia for the paternalistic, peaceful reign of her father as factory owner. It's really hard to figure out the politics here, because this is such a blend. Ozon not only lacks Chabrol's edge but also his clarity. He was probably attracted to this play not for its politics so much as for something campy about it. But all the actors handle their roles with great professionalism, and Depardieu and, most of all, Deneuve, who dominates here, with a distinction that makes something otherwise slight become memorable.

Potiche debuted at Venice and showed at Toronto, fall 2010, and in other festivals. It was seen and reviewed as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at the Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center, IFC Center and BAMcinématek. It will be the opening night film. The series is presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance. Distributed by Music Box in the US it opens theatrically March 18th.

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