Potiche is a delightful retro-feminist comedy and semi-musical from the French director François Ozon. It’s set in 1977, with the styles and colors to show it, and Catherine Deneuve plays Suzanne Pujol, the wife of a male chauvinist who runs the umbrella factory Deneuve inherited from her grandfather. The umbrella factory tells us that the film has The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964) in its genes. The tone of Potiche is far different — verging on farce at time — but it has a similar interest in the trials and tribulations of women living in provincial France.
The basic set-up is that Suzanne has been kept on the domestic shelf since she got married. Potiche is translated as “trophy wife” in the film. Her husband, Robert, runs the umbrella factory like a dictator, and the workers are preparing to go on strike. When Robert starts having heart problems because he is overwrought, Suzanne has to take over the company, where she works to calm the waters with her old flame, Maurice, played by Gerard Depardieu, a politician and political radical who has never married since his old affair with Suzanne. The potiche is transformed by her taste of power. She realizes that she doesn’t have to let the men in her life push her around.
The film has class on its mind as much as gender, and Suzanne gains our sympathy for the male chauvinism she suffers but also our laughs at her bourgeois nostalgia for the era of noblesse oblige. Yet her years of playing the peacemaker at home between her husband and her children have actually prepared her very well to negotiate with the factory workers, it turns out. The twisting plot uses the melodramatic formula of buried family secrets and the emotional reactions to them to explore Deneuve’s character and her growing sense of self-possession and new direction.
There’s also an element of social history to all this, and here I’m going to commit SPOILERS, so beware if such things matter to you. Even the social history feeds into the film’s sly sense of human absurdity. Suzanne’s son, Laurent, is dating the daughter of a baker, but it turns out that she’s probably actually the daughter of the philandering Robert, who is forced to confess because of fears that his son is committing incest. No problem, Suzanne eventually reveals, because Laurent was actually fathered by somebody that she had an affair with. Still, Laurent dresses rather flamboyantly, doesn’t he? And he has an artistic bent. Toward the end of the movie he tells his mother he’s broken up with the girl, and he introduces her to his new friend — a very handsome young man with a gentle smile. It’s clearly hinted that Laurent is actually gay, and in the background we see more and more handsome young men, fashionably dressed. And his new special friend? The son of the man who probably fathered Laurent …
Everybody has their secrets, everybody makes mistakes, everybody cheats, usually for love or sex. Potiche mocks the human foibles, but it forgives them, too. It’s a very sweet movie in the end, with Deneuve wrapping the world in her motherly arms. Deneuve is an institution and a superstar. In the finale she is portrayed as some kind of goddess placing her blessing on a needy world. The movie is devoted to her, and it knows that its audience is too.