Prolific French director Francois Ozon serves up another slice of brilliant female led French cinema of tremendous charm with Potiche.
Suzanne Pujol, a reclusive and on the shelf potiche (trophy wife) plays her part to ensure her factory boss husband Robert’s (Luchini) life runs smoothly. A light morning run moves on to making the coffee, to reminding him of his medicine, and to finish the morning of, making their separate beds. Encapsulating the life of a person in an opening is a difficult cinematic trick but it’s one that Ozon’s steady hand captures marvellously. Moments in and Suzanne’s life is set, presumably it’s checkmate, but all changes when Robert’s heart gives out after a fight with striking workers and Suzanne must step in to liberate her husband and placate the workers so vehemently enraged by her husband’s draconian management.
So, we’re in the 70s then. And Ozon is clearly a child of the time; everything feels exquisitely well placed, costumes, sets, furniture, even telephone cases, a retro landscape for a retro tale that’s steeped in ironic wink winks at the camera. For it is the transparency of the backward treatment of Suzanne that galvanizes our modernist instinctual liberalism and in turn hers too. Every character is perfectly judged to encourage in Suzanne either defiance or encouragement, from her sneering with contempt daughter on the right, to her vibrant and doting son on the left.
But it is Catherine Deneuve, receiver of all this impetus, who unravels slowly like a flower, exhibiting first tentatively and then magnificently a self imposed agency that defies her original status. It is a transformation that demands empathy and indeed support as truly she is the anchor for which her surrounding characters can grope to avoid the archaic whirlpool opening beneath them. Juxtaposed to the oblivious nature of those around her Suzanne retains her integrity, a lighthouse in the storm of conservatism and ineptness.
Indeed Mrs Pujol, the trophy wife, becomes Suzanne Michonneau-Pujol, the factory boss and political leader, a transformation which interweaves political drama and fluffy comedy artfully well, never too serious and never too light sweeping you along like a trophy wife’s broom. Due no doubt to the personal genesis of the feature Potiche courts an emotional engagement of arresting familiarity that belays any attempt to remain detached, teasing audiences into playful jubilance and uplifting joyousness.
Thankfully Potiche doesn’t come across as the well trodden road of feminist uprising and female liberation but something more nuanced – all that’s on display is a universal sentiment – the notion that a person can transcend their lot in life, go beyond their prescriptions and status, and challenge their own determinist status quo if the necessity strikes. It’s this universal message that keeps the film from being anything close to an ideological stab at female rights, keeping it on the straight and narrow of a heartening, charismatic and fuzzy coming of age tale.
Bountifully brilliant; Ozon’s latest bubbles along with a buoyant rhythmic quality, lulling audience’s into an uplifting and inspiring journey that pokes fun at its own sugar coated irony and then in one final blow undercuts it completely, staying true to its own mischievous nature.