Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: "Potiche"

"Potiche" is a delightful mix of farce, sex comedy, paean to women's liberation and soft-pitch socialism. As if you couldn't discern from that description, it's French.

This amusing, heartfelt film comes from writer/director François Ozon, who made the creepy/sexy psychological thriller "Swimming Pool," adapted from a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy. Set in 1977, it stars Catherine Deneuve as a trophy wife who takes over the umbrella factory of her rich industrialist tyrant of a husband after he falls ill, and finds the new role awakens long-dormant desires about the direction of her life.

Deneuve -- nearing 70, and still radiant -- is a completely engaging screen presence as Suzanne Pujol, living a life as carefully coifed as her bouffant hairdo. She oversees the household staff, jogs through the verdant countryside, writes snippets of joyful poetry, and knits. Accused by her daughter of being secretly miserable, Suzanne insists it can't be so, since she made the decision to be a happy person.

(The film's title is French for a decorative vase of little usefulness, and is also a slang term for a trophy wife.)

Her husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini), while diminutive in stature, is a giant when it comes to riding roughshod over others, whether it's his workers or his own family. He's a serial philanderer, including with his secretary Nadège (Karin Viard), and tells Suzanne her job is not to have opinions of her own but merely to support his.

As the story opens the union is threatening a strike due to Robert's draconian outmoded work conditions. One thing leads to another, and soon Robert is laid low by a heart attack, and Suzanne is tapped as a consensus pick to watch over things until his return. Lo and behold, she turns out to be a natural at a more maternal, hands-on style of management, and things dramatically improve.

(It helps that the unions' most critical demand is new bathrooms.)

The X factor is Maurice Babin, an old communist revolutionary who's now the town mayor and local representative to Parliament. He egged on the nastiest protests against the Pujol clan, but now steps in as Suzanne's secret counselor and ally. Complicating things between them is a long-ago fling from their mostly forgotten youth, but a few embers still give off heat.

Babin is played by Gérard Depardieu, and there's some nice romantic chemistry between him and Deneuve, despite that Depardieu is apparently following the Marlon Brando School of Late Life Rotundity for Acting Icons. Seriously, guy, time to push away from the dessert tray.

Suzanne's children, Joëlle (Judith Godrèche) and Laurent (Jérémie Renier), at first laugh off their mother's newfound enthusiasm for business leadership. But soon they're converts, working at mom's side and rooting on her growing ambitions.

Ozon directs with a breezy light touch, cascading the audience in a rainbow of DayGlo colors, feathered '70s hair and disco pop tunes. There are even cheesy musical cues I swear were lifted straight out of the "Charlie's Angels" TV show.

It doesn't add up to more than an entertaining piffle, but it's nice to see a French film that doesn't drown its audience in melancholy. OK, there is a sad moment or two ... it is French, after all.

3 stars out of four

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