By Robert Koehler
Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Francois Ozon–the ideal trio combo to launch the latest edition of the aggressively middlebrow Palm Springs Film Festival, which promotes a certain brand of world cinema that continues to view Europe as the center of the world. And if it stars Deneuve, all the better. The film? You may have heard of it, even though it astoundingly, amazingly, inexplicably, ridiculously hasn’t screened at a US festival until this very moment. (The closest location was Toronto, on the heels of its world premiere in Venice, which got it because Cannes stupidly passed on it for its obvious slot as–guess what?–opening film.) It would be Potiche, which roughly rhymes with “pastiche,” which, in part, it is. Ozon adopts a quaintly rear-guard position with this film, much as he did with his acrid pastiche musical, 8 Femmes.
From the opening credits, set in a rust-orange bulbous typeface popular in the comedy’s mid-70s setting and observing Deneuve jogging through the woods in a period-perfect exercise suit, Potiche revels in that decade’s half-in and half-out attitude toward kitsch. (During one charming scene between Deneuve and Depardieu, they dance under a disco ball on a club dance floor modeled on the club in Saturday Night Fever.) Reinforcing this is Ozon’s decision to not break out of the stage play frame established by the “boulevard comedy” by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy which Ozon adapted. The boulevard comedy, the enduring theater form of Paris’ commercial theater district, is about, by and for the bourgeois class, an explicit matter in Potiche, since it depicts what happens when the encrusted and belligerent owner of an umbrella factory (Fabrice Luchini, playing out of his usually softer range as an unmitigated asshole) drives his workforce to strike and hold him hostage until their workplace demands are met…..by the titular potiche (or trophy wife), Deneuve’s Suzanne. With the local town mayor (Depardieu’s Maurice) acting as a Richard Holbrooke-like go-between, Suzanne negotiates a peace, and manages to take over management of the factory from Luchini’s Robert, whose temper has triggered a heart condition that puts him on the capitalist team’s DL.
Thus, the other crowning theme of the 70s (besides semi-kitsch, disco and bad typefaces): Feminist awakening, which the film depicts without irony and absolute sincerity. Suzanne, once a domestic trophy of an arrogant businessman, is on course to be her own captain of industry, and eventually, a MP political candidate who defeats Maurice at the polls. That opening credit sequence again: A fantasy through and through, as Suzanne stops and watches various forest critters forage, scamper and copulate. Is the rest of Potiche also a fantasy? Perhaps, but like the decade, the film has one foot in reality, capturing in broad strokes a family of privilege butting heads with one another and an era in which the formerly powerless are being heard from (women and workers unite! could be the slogan here).
But here’s the thing about the calculations behind Potiche, and what makes it boulevard cinema. The characters are distinctly positioned in terms of their politics. Robert is a corporatist fascist who would be perfectly at home in Salazar’s Portugal or Pinochet’s Chile. Daughter Joelle (Judith Godreche, who looks to our 20-teens eyes like one of those obnoxious blondie anchors on Fox News) is his sympathizer, urging him to amp up company profits by shipping jobs overseas. Son Laurent (Jeremie Renier, playing him as gay but deeply closeted, an interesting choice) is throughly anti-capitalist, anti-materialist and basically anti-daddy, and looking for a direction in life.
Suzanne? Apolitical it seems, at first, and then vaguely Obama-like in her desire for everyone to get along with each other. But being a woman to the manor born, she lives for her neat Chanel couture (and Deneuve rocks the couture beautifully if not ostentatiously) and good life, so she will never adopt Maurice’s proud socialism nor his dream of revolution. In the end, Suzanne, the heroine, is a Democrat who defeats the Republicans in her own family, which makes one so want to witness the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Maria Shriver family watching Potiche. (Or, barring that, James Carville and Mary Matalin.) She won’t give up her wealth (like Democrats), but sympathizes with labor (like Democrats) without going lefty (like Democrats). She represents what is in between France’s, and Europe’s, old ideological fronts of the right and left, that fuzzy middle which loves a moderate sense of justice without revolutionary change, a moderate form of theater entertainment (Neil Simon in this country, boulevard comedy in France) and the kind of movies shown at the Palm Springs film festival.
Ozon’s steady shift to being a conservative filmmaker (he started off as some kind of radical, and then started making money) serves him well this time. Potiche is easily his best film in years–maybe since his early radical ones–and reminds one of the sorts of mildly engaging, well-written but frivolous fare in the 70s that used to star the likes of Jean Lefebvre and Miou-Miou. Perhaps “radical” is too strong to label Ozon’s original position; he was advance-guard certainly, and indicated that he may make some extremely interesting cinema. That never really happened, and like a director such as Pierre Granier-Deferre three generations back, he shifted to rear-guard. These positions remain an important aspect of French cinema, which is in constant self-reassessment, analyzing the placement of auteurs in terms of ideology and aesthetics. Ozon has been flirting with obsolescence; he is most certainly not a filmmaker in the conversation, not a maker of the movies that matter. But he proves with Potiche, in an unfettered way, that he can be an excellent entertainer. That is perhaps what he’s wanted to be all along, what he aspired to. If so, he has realized it.