Potiche

Potiche

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

What is it with François Ozon and the sexual awakening of middle-aged women? Perhaps there's something he's not telling us, but at any rate, what Potiche does, it does very well indeed. In case you're not familiar with the term, it means something akin to 'trophy wife'. Catherine Deneuve is the potiche of the title, married to Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who is superficially attentive but in reality utterly self-centered. He forgets her birthday. He's shagging his secretary. His every waking moment revolves around an obsession with work. She takes it all in her stride, resolutely optimistic, until one day escalating tensions at his umbrella factory lead Robert's health to take a turn for the worse. Thrust into the role of temporary factory manager, our heroine discovers strengths and desires she didn't know she had.

So far, so formulaic - a trait, of course, that is as vital to the success of farce as is exemplary acting (Ozon has never had any difficulty attracting quality stars). This is a film which plays such skillful and affectionate tribute to the French tradition of high comedy that you would be forgiven for thinking you've seen it before. It is the 1970s. The women's movement is just developing real force.

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Is this Ozon's more luridly coloured version of Made In Dagenham? Not quite. Because just when we think we know where it's going - with our heroine growing gradually closer to her old flame, union activist Maurice (Gérard Depardieu) - it takes a quite unexpected turn, revealing depths to its characters that we didn't know they had. Perhaps Robert is not the only one who has been keeping secrets. Perhaps there has always been more to this diligently respectable housewife than meets the eye.

With these game-changing moves, Ozon uses the building blocks of the comic tradition to tell a much more empowering tale that plays genuine tribute to a rounded female character as well as elevating those who would usually be treated as an afterthought (such as the secretary, beautifully played by Karin Viard). Nobody escapes the more vicious aspects of his satire and there are some truly withering lines, as well as many acutely observed casual cruelties, but alongside this there is at least a little bit of sympathy for all involved, even the tyrannical Robert.

Sub-plots explore the theme of fatherhood and the subtler forms of oppression faced by women in the world of business, plus there's a brief exploration of the effects of feminism on women who actually prefer to live more traditional lives. It's all brought to life with a wonderful lightness of touch, culminating in a musical number that brings a touch of surreality to all that has gone before. To what extent have the various actions we have seen really been about performance, about displays for the sake of others? This metatextual element reveals the film's intellectual complexity, though one could easily enjoy it as simple comedy and miss that entirely.

A superb example of comic craft showcasing some of France's greatest actors in their prime, Potiche is a real treat and deserves to be seen widely.

Reviewed on: 18 Feb 2011
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Potiche packshot
When her husband falls ill and his beautiful wife takes over his umbrella business, her life changes in unexpected and liberating ways.
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Director: François Ozon

Writer: François Ozon, based on the play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy

Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini

Year: 2010

Runtime: 103 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France

Festivals:

Glasgow 2011

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8 Women
The Great Love