For women, and men too, weary of nuance and yearning for a straightforward liberated woman to cheer and a tyrannical and pompous husband to deplore, the French comedy "Potiche"
is for you. Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu star in this delightful confection with a social message. Set in 1977, Deneuve is a stay-at-home "trophy wife" treated like an exalted maid by her sexist pig of a husband who's got a mistress on the side. The husband, played by Fabrice Luchini, struts around and issues orders and comes across as an all-around fool while his wife busies herself catering to his every whim. Then the workers strike at the umbrella factory he runs, hold him hostage, and the poor fellow is shaken to the core. Once he's released, his sympathetic wife dispatches him on a cruise to recover his health.
While he's out flirting with whomever he can find, she takes over the factory and -- voila! -- she does a better job. Of course, it was her father's business to start with. She also rekindles an old flame with her leftist boyfriend, played by Depardieu, who's a union activist and holds a seat in government. She implements his pro-worker views and the factory hums along with new bright colors for umbrellas created by her decidedly gay son, whom the husband disparages as "the little runt." Her daughter, who it turns out is more conservative, keeps the books and tries to put the brakes on her mother's social experiment. The family dynamic over workers' rights is a microcosm of the arguments we've heard in Wisconsin. How much should workers prosper? The difference is that in "Potiche," there is no ambiguity. The grievances of the workers are so clearly justified.
There are plenty of surprising twists and laughs in this film, adapted from the hit play
of the same name, as Deneuve's submissive character transforms into a top business executive, a rarity in 1977. The employees thrive and the husband is reduced to watching daytime television, a trophy spouse who takes his wife's old role (except he mostly lies around the house and doesn't tend to things, as she did). But it doesn't end there; hubby pulls off a devious power play, but cannot shake Deneuve's newfound confidence, even if she does yield back the factory.
The film is what the French call a "boulevard comedy" -- star-driven, light, not too challenging; in short, a movie to be enjoyed. The director, Francois Ozon
, is openly gay, and says that the female characters in his movies represent him; it's through them that his emotions and thoughts surface. Deneuve's character triumphs, though with complications for her newfound affair. She doesn't seem all that bothered, though; this is a movie that exalts career at a time when it eluded most women.
The particular French sensibility about sex comes through in an amusing way. Mistresses are no big deal, and it turns out Deneuve's character had a few flings herself, which dismays her leftist lover. In another gender reversal, he's the one who pines for what might have been. Film critic Gerald Peary, who spoke after a recent screening of the film, pointed out that even though "Potiche" is set in a time when women's liberation was just getting into full swing, "all movies about the past are really about today."