Between them, Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, the stars of Potiche, have a whopping four wins and 27 nominations for the César Awards, France’s version of the Oscars. In fact, Deneuve’s 11th nomination was for her performance here. And Depardieu’s 16 César nods are the most in history.
What a tragedy, then, that between the two leading actors they couldn’t pull off this French farce. Depardieu and Deneuve play former lovers who, 25 years later, find themselves on opposite sides of a labor dispute. Her family umbrella business, begun by her father and passed on by marriage to her husband, is more profitable than ever, due in large part to the company’s siphoning of rights and money away from the workers. Though not fully in support of her husband’s methods, Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve) does not want to see the business eroded by labor strikes encouraged by former union organizer Maurice Babin (Depardieu). As the fate of the umbrella factory comes to a head, so do 20-odd years of things left unsaid between the two.
On the surface, the movie is a comedy, although it would probably have been better as a drama. The title, Potiche, is meant to signify a trophy wife. (The word roughly translates to “ornamental vase.”) However, it is nearly impossible to think of Catherine Deneuve in those terms, and she does not stay on the shelf very long in the film. The strikes contribute to her husband’s failing health, so Suzanne steps in to take charge of the company, meeting the labor unions in the middle and giving the factory a few womanly touches along the way.
Some of Suzanne’s decisions are simply the result of her intelligence, but a lot of them are acts of defiance against her husband (Fabrice Luchini), a philandering fathead who deserves this comeuppance. The action is set in 1977, so the message of female empowerment is timely.
This is where a film that is aiming to be something other than a comedy would take a quantum leap, but Potiche doesn’t. It demands only so much of Deneuve, and everything after the first hour requires very little of the viewer or the actors. The power-play for control of the factory could fill a cozy half-hour of screen time instead of a couple of scenes, and there is far less confrontation between the husband and wife than the situation warrants.
Potiche is the latest film from François Ozon, a director of the most recent French new wave, who has been fortunate enough to get three films on the radar in the United States in his first decade of work. The sprightly murder-musical-comedy 8 Women co-starred Deneuve, and it’s a terrific, well-appointed, engaging piece of fluff. Like Potiche, that movie was based on a stage play. Ozon also hit cinemas the following year with the barely dressed whodunit Swimming Pool.
In comparison to those, Potiche doesn’t seem to have much on its mind. The period touches are nice enough, but there is never any sense that this film, like Ozon’s others, has a stamp of individuality or even clarity.
It’s amusing at times, and Deneuve, when pressed, obviously can still perform with the best of them — but Potiche really isn’t much more than an ornamental vase after all.
A version of this story was originally published in Tucson Weekly.
Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu. Directed by François Ozon. Based on the play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy. French with English subtitles. Rated R.