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May 1, 2011

There is a common misapprehension that European films — particularly French ones — are all dreary art pieces or arch dramaturgy. It’s understandable, given what usually gets distributed over here. But Potiche proves that there are wonderfully entertaining and easily-accessible French movies too; delightful, well-written farces that find a middle ground between American special effects and puerile humor on the one side, and the oat-hull austerity of Dogme 95 in the other.

Mme. Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve) is a potiche — a “trophy wife”, though that doesn’t quite capture the right nuance. Maybe “agi heiress” would fit better. Indeed, she was once young and gorgeous — not that she’s not well-preserved now — but her husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), wasn’t trading in an old wife for new arm candy when they married. Rather, he was an aspiring businessman who now runs the umbrella factory that Mme. Pujol’s father started.

Robert puts the chauvin in male chauvinist pig, and hates the idea of his wife working, even in their enormous home. Since their children — the Alex Keatonesque daughter, Joëlle (Judith Godrèche), and the bourgeois-bohème son, Laurent (Jérémie Renier) — have left the nest, Suzanne has little to do but jog and compose doggerel quatrains about squirrels and roses. And of course Robert isn’t paying her as much attention as he does to his secretary, Mlle. Nadège (Karin Viard).

But life is upended when a strike breaks out at the factory. Careless of his heart condition, Robert charges over and is promptly held hostage. In order to defuse the situation, Suzanne turns to her old acquaintance the communist mayor and member of parliament, Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu). He agrees to secure Robert’s release in exchange for Suzanne’s help in enacting some of the workers’ demands.

However, upon his release, Robert is incensed to hear of Maurice’s involvement, and promptly has a heart attack. While he is sent away on a three-month cruise, it falls to Suzanne to take over operations at the factory. As she does, a new woman emerges: a strong, independent, capable “woman of the ’80s”. Once thought behind-the-times, she finds herself at least two years ahead of them now. And yet, how will Robert take it when he returns?

Set in 1977 and 1978, François Ozon captures the look and feel perfectly, from the clothes, furnishings, and styles to the music, the cinematography, and even the typeface on the opening credits. In fact, the whole opening sequence feels like it was drawn straight from a late-’70s movie or TV show.

As for the content, well this is pretty light fare. The woman-triumphant theme plays out pretty much as expected, and there are no great surprises or speeches. In a way, it feels like a very French attitude, at least as interpreted from an American perspective: feminism, like the occasional affair, is one of those things that happens, and after the original shock it’s best to find a good-natured perspective on the matter. Even Robert might be vindictive and reactionary, but in the end he’s never quite mean.

But as light as it is, Potiche isn’t daft. It’s charming and funny, and it makes us happy to get the chance to watch this trophy of a wife come down off of her pedestal and show the world what she can do.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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