Monday, April 18, 2011


Review: Potiche
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Without a drop of tiger blood, Catherine Deneuve is all kinds of winning in “Potiche,” a campy, colorful lark that's even delectable when it melts into a puddle of syrup. The latest from the ever-exciting, ever-versatile François Ozon, the French comedy sees Deneuve play a rich tyrant's pampered spouse (the title translates to “trophy wife”), who steps out of the shadows toward fulfillment, then pays her liberation forward by claiming positions of power and inciting change. How sweet, how graciously out of step, that we can have a feminist film that laughs at itself. Ozon, with one eyebrow raised and tongue in cheek, hurries to make his intentions known. He introduces Deneuve's character, Suzanne Pujol, during a morning jog, her bright red tracksuit and sprightly surroundings establishing the candied color scheme, a fairy-tale land of privilege, and a warm sense of humor that's decidedly off-kilter (woodland creatures come to greet her, but also hump). With that light touch of naughtiness (bad touch!), Ozon keeps spirits high and moods light even when drama is afoot, thus offering a sister-doing-it-for-herself story that's never funnel-fed.

And, yes, that lovely Deneuve. Ozon, in a feature film career that's spanned little more than a decade, has managed to work with a stunning lineup of France's best and brightest actresses, directing Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Charlotte Rampling, Jeanne Moreau, Fanny Ardant, Ludivine Sagnier and Emanuelle Beart, to name a few. Here, it's a Deneuve showcase, with the prolific star aloof and charming in a role that, if not exactly challenging, is certainly a fun pedestal on which to place a legendary muse. From the narrow POV of her husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), Suzanne is just another bauble to be kept inside his mansion, voiceless save for her agreements and pastime of writing poetry. It's an existence she's come to accept with gritted teeth (“Of course I'm happy – I made up my mind to be,” she says), despite the nudges and teasings of her grown children, Joëlle (Judith Godrèche) and Laurent (Jérémie Renier). But when an uprising of disgruntled workers at Robert's umbrella factory sends the hypertensive boss into the hospital, Suzanne, at the suggestion of the town's communist mayor (Gerard Depardieu), steps up to fill the void, both at the business and in her life.

"Pujol! Asshole! Pujol! Asshole!"
Though doctored to better reflect the contemporary woes of struggling laborers, “Potiche,” set in 1977, is based on a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, which Ozon had been itching to adapt for years. A class comedy that flirts with the farcical, its closest relative in Ozon's filmography is “8 Women,” the star-studded 2002 whodunit that also had stage origins (and also starred Deneuve). If not style (the costumes! the rounded-edge split-screens! the disco flourishes!), it's breezy wit and easy irony at which Ozon proves most adept. Some of the jokes in “Potiche” tank (“When this happened to Marie Antoinette, she didn't lose her head,” Suzanne says amidst the worker revolt), others soar (“I've made up my mind, and I'm keeping my baby,” Joëlle tells her mother), but all fit into the filmmaker's tapestry of knowing, peppy melodrama. A pretzel of genealogical mysteries and checkered pasts underscores the events of the film's present, peeling back layers to reveal Suzanne's moxie, and often giving the viewer the juicy advantage of being more in-the-know than the characters. It's the endearing self-deprecation, flecked with elements of Almodóvar, John Waters and Jacques Demy, that keep “Potiche” miles above something like “Made in Dagenham” or, for godssakes, “Secretariat.”

Suzanne is more Elle Woods than Rosie the Riveter. Some of the best moments involve seeing her get preposterously dolled up to greet the gruff workers, with whom she aims to restore the friendly bonds in place before Robert took the helm (the factory was once owned by Suzanne's father). Colors brighten along with the conditions, and the workplace becomes more and more of a parasol palace (thanks in, in no small part, to the artsy Laurent, Ozon's requisite gay character, who along with his sister is recruited to be on staff). Subsequent family strife gives the movie the earthbound foothold it needs, but the spotlight remains on Deneuve, whose Suzanne keeps piling on the successes, not the least of which is the emancipation of Robert's secretary/mistress (Karin Viard, mildly calling to mind “Mad Men's” Christina Hendricks). Francophiles will delight at the leading lady's pairing with Depardieu, whose benevolent politico shares a saucy history with Suzanne. A delightful scene sees the pair get their Tony Manero on inside a club, and another, which works despite its overindulgence, may even remind some of a back-in-the-day duet between the two icons. Ozon knows how to pay homage, and he certainly knows how to tip his hat to Deneuve, who at 67 continues to laugh in the face of time's ticking clock and weather the phases of her career. Take that, Charlie Sheen.

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