Friday, 18 March 2011

Potiche (2010)

The above film from prolific director Francois Ozon was the opening movie of a 3-day French film festival here and we were immediately attracted to it by the cinematic reunion of its two stars: Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu. They have appeared together notably in the past, and since a new movie starring either of them is cause for excitement, seeing them together again was a strong incentive -- and, let me quickly add, a most enjoyable experience.

'Potiche' translates as an ornamental Japanese vase prominently displayed on a shelf, but is also used as the description of a trophy wife or trophy mistress. This is the fate of Deneuve, 30-years married to pompous and unfaithful Fabrice Luchini, who considers her late father's umbrella factory his dowry. They have a married daughter with two children, who bemoans her husband's constant business travel, and a vaguely bohemian son who has not yet decided what he wants from life, but who certainly has no interest in becoming an umbrella tycoon. The start of the film dawdles over Deneuve's relatively empty life, her childrens' indecisiveness, and her feckless husband's taking her happy hausfrau role for granted, while he has it off with all and sundry. When he is taken hostage by protesting workers at his factory, Deneuve enlists the help of his great enemy, the local left-wing mayor and MP Depardieu, who just happens to be a one-day romantic fling from her distant past. When the trauma of his deliverance from his workers' revolt causes Luchini to have a heart attack, Deneuve is encouraged to take over the factory's management in his absence. This she does reluctantly, but with the help of her kids and the legacy of her father's benevolence, she is a major hit with the workers, showing a previously unsuspected head for business as profits soar.

Set in 1977, the film's focus is firmly on the rise of feminism. Ozon's early movies concentrated on his own gay sensibilities, but his films since 2000 like "Under the Sand", "8 Women", and "Swimming Pool" show far greater versatility and seem to celebrate feisty, strong, determined women. Deneuve's blossoming as the factory's successful boss is resented by her husband when he returns to the scene, assuming that everything will revert to what was, including his casual nookie with his secretary. Fat chance, and Deneuve doesn't want to give up what she has accomplished. She only loses control when her daughter (firmly under the heavy thumb of her own husband) votes with her swarmy dad. Unfazed, Deneuve decides to divorce the swine and to stand as local MP in the upcoming elections, unseating Depardieu in the process.

The bare bones of this tale do not reflect the charming performances from the two leads. Still handsome and trim in her 60s, Deneuve is not the great beauty that she once was, but remains a skilled performer. There is a bit of business about Depardieu's possibly being the father of her son and he is chuffed as monkeys at the prospect, before she disillusions him with details of her many other liaisons. However before this revelation alientates him, they have a number of playful scenes together as he admits that she remains the unrequited love of his life. He may be a bit of a man-mountain physically nowadays, but their dancing together at the local, slightly risque, disco (where her husband would never take her) is as joyous as watching Oliver Hardy's unsuspected grace. Full marks to M. Ozon for reuniting these performers and giving them such well-rounded roles for their late careers.
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