Potiche pretends to be silly and lighthearted while being rife with undercurrents that threaten to provide deeper meaning to the story. This is colorful and goofy with acting that approaches broad, then withdraws at the verge as if to regard whether the audience is paying attention. At the lead is Catherine Deneuve (Suzanne), who skillfully plays a smart character that has become accustomed to playing dumb all her life. ‘Potiche’ refers to the trophy wife that she has become, married to a ignorant and arrogant man (Robert) who rules an umbrella factory as his own private fiefdom. The factory was built and run for years by Suzanne’s father, but he seems to think it was his creation all along. The workers at the umbrella factory strike, Robert storms the protest to give them a good verbal lashing – and is taken hostage. Suzanne is left to negotiate as the head of the factory in his absence with the help of Maurice (Gerard Depardieu), the socialist mayor. While styled as a quick-witted farce, Potiche is filled with conflicting passions. The socialists and capitalists are at each others’ throats, men and women battle for financial supremacy (always thinly veiled sexual warfare), and numerous themes regarding globalization, sexual liberation, and gender roles play a supporting part. First and foremost, it is a comedy, and it is a sharp one at that.
Suzanne is the very picture of still waters, though she is none too deep throughout Potiche. She writes simple and silly poems, jogs, and ignores her husband’s clumsy infidelities. She is not stupid, however, just bored. Her husband does not have her fooled, for example, since she just prefers to let other women service the idiot with whom she shares the house. This is where Deneuve shows why she is one of the greatest of actresses – her arc is a practical one, and when given power she runs with it, and it never feels like a false one imbued with informed attributes. Her children do not seem to recognize her abilities, openly mocking her with their assumptions of her simplicity. He daughter Joelle remarks “I do not want to end up like you”, with no malice intended. Well, Suzanne just has nothing better to do at the moment. When the strike occurs, she eventually becomes an effective negotiator after considerable trial and error. Maurice is on hand to lend his support, though mostly out of affection for Suzanne, as they shared love once. Robert is thick from start to finish, never accepting the notion that his wife could actually run the factory effectively, though he is correct that she would be incapable of his ruthlessness.
While this sounds like a 9 to 5 remake (sans the awesome douchebaggery of Dabney Coleman), Francois Ozon is careful to maintain a tone of breezy silliness. Make no mistake, there is an iron grip on the production, and the tale is meticulously crafted while appearing to take nothing about itself seriously. Potiche is deeply derisive about traditional gender roles, mocks capitalism as only a Frenchman can, and is free to drop acidic dialogue whenever possible. Suzanne is a demure housewife, but this mold is hilariously broken as we get to know her more closely. As the flashbacks begin to pile up with her copulations, and she starts to forget just who she was servicing at any one time, it becomes a joke in itself. The most traditional woman is her daughter Joelle, who is herself a parody of virulently conservative radical women who feel women belong in the home and men belong in the office, holding a bullwhip to use on cheeky employees as often as possible. Robert is a traditional man, and inherits the factory but acts as though he built it. This is a sly play on free market conservatives who are confused by the notion that there is more to success than work. He has his fun with the secretary (who hates him anyway), but Suzanne could not give a toss, her own infidelities committed out of joie de vivre rather than something as insipid as revenge.
The film is set in the 1970s amidst a time of economic turmoil, though the subject of globalization (Joelle proposes moving the factory to North Africa) renders the period moot. The issues involved in Potiche are timeless, and perhaps one of the points to be made would be that one must always be adaptable, if not always capable. Suzanne is as egalitarian in her political and fiscal leanings as her sexual conquests, while Maurice appears to be running out of steam. He changes little throughout the film, and it is suggested that perhaps one’s political bent should be either flexible or it had better be disposable.
This is a busy film, and one gets the impression that Francois Ozon is constantly fucking with you. I appreciate that sentiment, as his best films (Swimming Pool, 5×2) struggle mightily to move the goalposts and deny the audience a comfortable seat. In this, I likely missed some important themes and clever jokes that slid by me, as I was captivated by the enormous sense of humor at the core of Potiche. That, and the flawless and immensely relaxed performances by Deneuve and Depardieu, who inhabit their characters and make acting look easy.