French auteur Francois Ozon’s “Potiche” begins with a scene that seems straight out of a Disney movie; that is, if Sleeping Beauty were wearing a ‘70s-era tracksuit and she happened upon bunnies shagging like, well, bunnies. Catherine Deneuve’s Suzanne Pujol steadfastly treks through the woods, keeping her figure trim for her businessman husband as she composes poetry for the feathered and furry friends who surround her. But as Suzanne walks through an idyllic oasis and returns to her mansion, it becomes clear that her life is no fairy tale.
“Potiche” is essentially French for tchotchke, and it’s also used as slang for a trophy wife. Suzanne’s role in her husband’s life is purely decorative; Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini) scolds his wife for how she runs their household, and he is living--and loving--the cliché of having an affair with his secretary Nadege (Karin Viard). He’s a misogynistic boor who automatically assumes his daughter Joelle (Judith Godreche) won’t be as much of an asset at his umbrella factory as his son Laurent (Jeremie Renier) simply because she is a woman. This is the '70s, but Robert is stuck firmly in the ‘50s.
He handles his workers as well as he handles his family, and it’s little surprise when they strike and take him hostage. With the help of Robert’s sworn enemy and Suzanne’s ex-lover, left-wing union organizer Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu), Suzanne helps negotiate his release and while he recovers, she takes over the factory that was once her father’s business. When he returns, a struggle for power within the business and the family erupts, pitting wife against husband in what is supposed to be a hilarious battle of the sexes.
With “Potiche,” Ozon returns to the candy-colored satire of previous films like “8 Women” and “Sitcom” and strays from his more recent, more realistic dramas such as “Hideaway,” “Time to Leave” and “5x2.” There are some sexy surprises that elicit giggles, and it’s often fun in an intentionally ridiculous sort of way. However, it’s hard to see exactly what, if anything, Ozon is trying to say. “Potiche” is feminist in a kitschy, second-wave style where everyone seems struck by the idea that a woman could run a factory, most of all Suzanne herself. At times the film is forward-thinking, and other times it seems to validate the backward ideas of the day.
Ozon adapted “Potiche” from the play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy, and he added a third act where Suzanne extends her power from business to the political arena. It feels tacked on, an attempt to further hammer in Suzanne’s suitability as a leader. The film randomly ends with the heroine singing a song called “C’est beau la vie,” and it’s never been more clear that subtlety in a script is not Ozon’s strong point. This is how he ends a film that essentially serves as a whole-face-contorting wink at the audience while he shoves in plots about decades-old affairs and concerns about possible incest.
However, it’s the gorgeous visuals and a solid performance from the always captivating Deneuve that buoy “Potiche” and turn it into a fast 90-minute affair. Deneueve is still stunning, and it’s wonderful to see her reunite with Depardieu as both of them seem to be having a blast. But the collaboration between Ozon, director of photography Yorick Le Saux, production designer Katia Wyszkop, and costume designer Pascaline Chavanne deserves credit as well. Each moment seems perfectly composed, as clothing perfectly coordinates with the set, and it’s all contained within a well-framed shot. Much of Ozon’s more recent work including “Hideaway” and “Time to Leave” lacks the energetic style that made his earlier films like “Swimming Pool” and “8 Women” seem so well-crafted, and this is a fine return to form in that respect. Even though we don’t really care about the dialogue or script at times, it’s easy--and fun!--to be distracted by the pretty pictures. [B-]