Potiche – Film as Ornament

Catherine Deneuve as a “trophy wife” who takes over the business; Francois Ozon’s homage to 2nd wave feminism

On The Town | Valerie Crawford-Pfannhauser | May 2011

The French word potiche is an ornamental object of little value, something of no real use; but in everyday language it is a derogatory term for a woman, roughly equivalent to ‘trophy wife’, without her own identity. Or sometimes for a younger wife taken as a symbol of an older man’s power or virility. But more, it is used for a thing once beloved, now set on a shelf and largely ignored.

Enter Catherine Deneuve as Suzanne Pujol. It is 1977 and Suzanne is a housewife in a provincial French town. Her anger-prone businessman husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini) runs the umbrella factory that she had inherited from her father. Her father was apparently a rather paternal boss who treated his workers like family but Robert treats them with contempt.

Potiche directed by François Ozon is an adaptation of the popular French play of the same name, set in the 1970s, by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, first performed in 1980. It reunites Ozon with Deneuve, the iconic French actress, whom he also directed in Eight Women.

This is an eclectic film in both content and style – weaving elements of farce, melodrama, screwball comedy and musical into something of a brightly colored sitcom. With the tone and gestures of a stage extravaganza, the score is exuberantly retro, as is the costume and period design. Potiche is a highly entertaining, enjoyable and effervescent experience, able to deliver enough complexity in the plot and a satiric bite to its breeziness, as it targets sexual and class stereotypes that still are relevant today.

In the idyllic nature scene that begins the story we first encounter Suzanne in a bright red track suit slowly jogging, so as not to disturb the curlers in her hair. She is inspired by the frolicking wildlife along the path and stops momentarily to scribble bad poetic couplets, which are little more than banal, into her tiny notepad.

Suzanne lives a life of enchanted, if slightly tiresome, decorativeness. She indulges her two grown children, clueless Laurent (Jeremie Renier) and calculating Joelle (Judith Godreche) and her imperious husband Robert is too busy at the factory to pay much attention to her. Suzanne laughs off Robert’s crankiness, his casual abuse of the workers at his factory, and simply ignores his constant philandering. Her daughter Joelle challenges her as to why she puts up with it all; she’s planning on leaving her own husband for the same reasons herself.

When a strike at the factory results in her husband being held hostage and then disowned by his staff, it is Suzanne who steps in to manage the business. To the surprise of most, Suzanne proves to be an assertive woman of action. With the help of the communist mayor, her former lover Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu), she puts an end to the strike, gets the factory running again and improves the employees’ working conditions. Everyone prefers Suzanne’s nurturing management style, even Robert’s former secretary, Nadege (Karin Viard), who was also his mistress.

This seemingly frivolous woman who has done nothing for years – at least nothing that the world considers work – blossoms into a smart, effective executive. She is remarkably at ease, strolling in the airy workrooms as dealing with the machinations of her husband an ex-flame, her children and secretary turned accomplice. Deneuve’s approach to the role is not to pretend Suzanne becomes suddenly serious, but to show Suzanne as still exactly the same person – it is only the circumstances that change. She ends up showing her daughter – who is all talk when it comes to standing up for herself – what liberation is really about. Her journey becomes Ozon’s heartfelt tribute to second-wave feminism, and to the power of a woman in control of her own destiny to realize every bit of her talent and potential.

Potiche is an eccentric film that is strong on comedy and well-nuanced performances from a rich ensemble. The characters deliver the deliberately soapy dialogue absolutely straight, selling the awareness of its artificiality without resorting to spoof. Ozon also cultivates the comedy by deliberating slowing down certain scenes, focusing on the more common-place moments and giving us a close visual proximity to the main characters, this works to humorous effect when Suzanne goes to ask Babin for his help. In what by today’s standards looks like the most basic of small cars, Suzanne attempts to drive incognito to the apartment block where Babin lives. The film does not cut straightaway to her in Babin’s apartment, rather we get the whole maneuvers of the car being parked as if we could be in the car with her or guiding her into the space.

Indeed it is Deneuve and Depardieu who bring pure magic to the screen, and one of the most memorable scenes is on the dance floor in the night-club where they sing along to the music and hold each other close – the genuine affection these actors have for each other emanates from the screen, as is the sense that they are having fun together making this film. Ozon uses the charismatic pairing of these two legendary French stars to perfection and gives them a chance to shine in lively, playful roles.


In French, with German subtitles; playing at the Votiv Kino on Währinger Straße in Vienna

Film website: http://potichemovie.com/

Other articles from this issue

  • Celebrating Equal Pay

    Women toast the day they finally catch up what men earned last year – redefining Feminism in the 21st century
    On The Town | Sara Friedman
  • Sandwich Select at Trzesniewski

    Trzesniewski, in the very heart of Vienna, caters to the hungry on the run and on a budget, but who still want charm
    Services | Mina Nacheva
  • Amos Vogel, Saboteur

    Turning 90, the Viennese New Yorker who spearheaded a global film movement, was honored at the Austrian Film Museum
    TVR Books | Camilo C. Antonio
  • Henry’s: Fast and Fastidious

    Top ingredients, prepared freshly each day with love and care: it’s convenient, tasty and guaranteed not to kill you
    Services | David Woergoetter
  • All articles from this issue

    the vienna review May 2011