“Potiche” is Catherine Deneuve’s show, and she knows it. Directed by François Ozon and adapted from the 1970s play, the story follows Suzanne Pujo (Deneauve) in the title role as the longtime stay-at-home arm candy of tyrannical factory owner Robert (Fabrice Luchini) given the chance to come out of the shadows when the factory workers go on strike. Playfully nostalgic for the era and littered with energetic exchanges, the movie gives Deneuve some of her best material in years.
Taking a more heavily stylized approach than his last few outings, Ozon begins in 1977, with a brassy soundtrack and large, blocky credits of the sort not seen onscreen since “Jackie Brown.” Enjoying a tranquil jog through the woods, Suzanne appears at peace with her stress-less existence, but that surface cheeriness hides her inner frustrations. “I’m the queen of kitchen appliances,” she sighs, reflecting on 30 years of an uneventful marriage.
When the strike results in her husband being taken hostage, Suzanne–whose father once ran the shop–steps up to the negotiation table. Recovering from the experience, Robert suddenly realizes that he has been relegated to a secondary role. “I’m the trophy?” he gasps, unable to accept the prospects of accepting a role he views as intrinsically feminine. But “Potiche” (which translates as “trophy wife”) is all about turning predictable roles inside out. “Your job is to share my opinion,” Robert tells Suzanne when she initially tries to advise him about the strike–but once she takes over that job, he can’t clam up.
Now relishing the control over her destiny, Suzanne briefly rekindles an affair with dedicated factory employee Maurice (Gérard Depardieu), who may or may not have sired her son during their initial liaison years ago. Even that engagement, however, comes with an internal agenda: Suzanne’s need to embolden her rising stature. “A bourgeois nymphomaniac,” Maurice sighs when he starts catching on.
Holding onto her soapbox, Suzanne leads an uprising of her own, and the result is an endearing crowdpleaser that culminates in a lively celebratory song containing all the showiness of a vintage MGM musical. With the play providing a solid foundation for the narrative, “Potiche” successfully satirizes the gender politics at its core. At the same time, it knowingly mocks the obsession over debates about the suppression of women that pervaded the culture during the movie’s setting. Still going strong in her late 60’s, Deneuve’s energizing performance offers the best proof that the myth of the trophy wife is just that.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A crowdpleaser at major festivals over the past year, “Potiche” should play well to arthouse audiences on the basis of the combined appeal for its star and its director.
criticWIRE grade: A-