Francois Ozon delivers a fluffy, old-fashioned delight with “Potiche,” which happily gives the legendary Catherine Deneuve one of her best roles in years. It’s such a charmer that even the musical routine it ends with is tolerable.
Based on a play by Pierre Barrilet and Jean-Pierre Grady, who wrote the French original that was adapted into English as “Cactus Flower,” the movie is also about the liberation of a woman long kept down by a male power structure. In this case she’s Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve), the ultra-elegant “trophy wife” of her husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini), the primly dictatorial manager of the umbrella factory she inherited from her father. The year is 1977, and the workers engage in production stoppages to force Robert to give in to their demands for increased vacations, improved wages and better conditions. When he confronts them in his usual imperious manner, they take him hostage, leading Suzanne to call upon an old acquaintance, the Communist mayor and MP Babin (Gerard Depardieu), to intercede for his release. And when Robert suffers a heart attack upon returning home, Suzanne’s persuaded to take over his role as manager while he recuperates.
She proves extraordinarily successful at the job, increasing profits by expanding sales and reaching agreements with the works. But that’s not all. She brings her two dissimilar children—a right-wing (and unhappily married) daughter (Judith Godreche) and a far more liberal, artistically-inclined son (Jeremie Renier)—into the business, the former as her financial aide and the latter as a designer. She gives responsibility to Robert’s secretary (Karin Viard), who was also his mistress, and who’s invigorated by the newfound respect. And she attracts the romantic attention of Babin, with whom—as it turns out—she once had a tryst, and who still carries a flame for her. That, however, proves to be only the tip of the iceberg in Suzanne’s past.
Ozon, inspired by Barrilet and Grady, conjures up complications as Robert returns from his vacation and tries to reclaim his position, which his wife now intends to retain. The twists and reversals that follow—both industrial and personal—haven’t much plausibility to them, but that’s hardly material to a piece that depends more on froth and clockwork precision than on credibility.
And the cast throws itself fully into the piece. Deneuve is simply luminous in the fine clothes and luxurious surroundings Ozon and his production team have assembled, and plays Suzanne with an aristocratic sense of elegance. Luchini goes for broke as the industrial martinet with a little boy’s insecure streak inside, and Depardieu, more bearlike than ever, does a pleasantly restrained turn as the old radical now looking for more domestic victories. Renier, Godreche and especially Viard play things more broadly, bringing out the script’s farcical elements to great effect.
Ozon and his team behind the camera give the picture a lustrous look, with the bright colors of Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography resembling Almodovar. Everything, from set design to costuming, has the look of an old Ross Hunter-Douglas Sirk flick, and Philippe Rombi’s score, which employs plenty pop songs, adds to the feel-good atmosphere. The grande finale goes way over the top, but in this context even it fits.
“Potiche” doesn’t treat the subject of female empowerment with any profundity, but as dished up here, it certainly makes it enjoyable.