Sunday, 12 June 2011

Film Review: Potiche (Ozon, 2010)

God bless François Ozon, surely the most confounding, as well as the most prolific, of contemporary film-makers. The director’s latest work, Potiche, apparently began life when Ozon was asked to make a film about Nicolas Sarkozy, a docudrama in the Peter Morgan “mould.” (Both senses of that word seem apt here.) Somewhere along the way, however, Ozon got side-tracked, and turned his attention instead to a 1970s boulevard comedy by Pierre Barillet and Jean Pierre-Grody that explored women in the workplace. That text, filtered through Ozon’s observations of the misogynistic media discourse surrounding Ségoléne Royal’s unsuccessful 2007 presidential campaign, has inspired Potiche - not the piece of bogus impersonation that a film on Sarko might have been but rather a bright, high-camp foray into gender politics and 70s kitsch that takes its place alongside Ozon’s earlier subversive comedies, Sitcom (1998) and 8 Women (2000).

As successful as most of his dramatic forays have been (and his last one, Le Refuge, was my favourite film of last year) it’s nice to find Ozon letting his hair down with this confection. And one of the central pleasures of Potiche is that it reunites the director with one of his 8 Women, Catherine Deneuve. Here she’s Suzanne: wife of a wealthy industrialist, Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini), and mother to two 20-something children, daddy’s girl Joëlle (Judith Godréche) and mummy’s boy Paul (Jeremie Reiner). Suzanne is presented, initially, as a slightly daffy woman who’s content with her lot, whether she’s composing doggerel on country walks, or (in the movie’s most charming scene) singing and dancing along to pop ditties as she does the housework. But when Robert is held captive by a bunch of striking employees, and has a heart attack, Suzanne is left to take over running the factory, a role in which she proves thoroughly adept. Her new post brings her into contact with the Communist mayor, Babin (Gerard Depardieu), with whom she has a romantic history, and of course into conflict with Robert who, once recovered, reacts rather badly to the turning of the tables.

Art-directed, designed, costumed and choreographed to within an inch of its life, Potiche (the title means "Trophy Wife") looks a treat. Filtered, Ozon has claimed, through his own childhood memories of the 70s, the movie is at once deeply textured and cartoonish; the images have a gorgeous pop lusciousness that, coupled with Ozon’s brisk story-telling skills, brings a heart-lifting charm to the opening sequences of the movie in which Suzanne is introduced. As with much of the director’s output, the film runs the risk of being labelled a mere style-exercise, but its visual flair is combined with some good points on gender politics too. The feminism here may be fairly rudimentary, but it’s fully appreciated nonetheless, taking Potiche, at its best, into the realm of early Almodovar-esque “kitsch-and-think” comedy.

As usual, Ozon elicits highly enjoyable performances from his actors. Deneuve, an underrated comedienne, is wonderful, though a case could be made that Suzanne, like Born Yesterday's Billie Dawn before her, is much more fun before her awakening: the movie’s greatest flaw, I’d argue, is that it doesn’t quite succeed in making her empowerment as exciting as it should be. The hyper Luchini is good value as always, although some of his scenes seem to lack punch-lines. Judith Godréche does well in an unsympathetic role, and it’s delightful to see Jeremie Renier (reuniting with Ozon for the first time since the devilish Criminal Lovers [1999]) liberated from Dardenne-angst and delivering a very funny and appealing performance - he’s also the protagonist of the movie’s cheekiest twist. Karin Viard is great as the secretary who’s sparked into rebellion by Suzanne’s example. And Depardieu is, well, Depardieu: lumbering, awkward, endearing. The role doesn’t allow him the room for manoeuvre that his great role in The Singer (2006) did, but he delivers a game performance nonetheless. Ever the cinephile, Ozon riffs on the actor’s screen history with Deneuve in amusing ways, even if his attempt to inject their characters’ back-story with “real” emotion (via weak melodramatic flashbacks) falls sadly flat.

Potiche is always on the verge of becoming wilder and crazier and funnier than it ever actually does. For the most part, that verge isn’t a bad place to be, but it does mean that some scenes are let-downs: in particular the sequence that should be the great highlight - Deneuve and Depardieu hitting the dance floor - is a damp squib. (Apparently, Depardieu couldn't master the moves!) It doesn’t help, in addition, that the trailer for the movie reveals all the major plot points and most of the best bits. And towards the end, when the film should be gaining momentum, it becomes oddly tiresome, degenerating into a series of dressing-up-Deneuve montages as Suzanne extends her ambitions to a political career and goes on the campaign trail. Happily, a brazenly ridiculous musical flourish redeems the film’s final moments. And if, ultimately, Potiche can’t quite match either Sitcom or 8 Women for big laughs or subversive surprises, it remains a great deal of fun nonetheless.

Potiche is released in UK cinemas on 17th June.


  1. hummm
    me thinks that I would HATE this movie Alex....

  2. You'd love it & you know it, Mr. Gray. :)