François Ozon's Potiche is a sentimental exercise in reuniting two of the great lions of the last half century of French cinema in a film: Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu. The big scene is straight out of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (itself a series of shout-outs to the French Nouvelle Vague): Our couple is on a not-so-platonic date at a tawdry nightclub where they are conspicuously out of place.
After some awkward conversation, they hit the dance floor as a Bee Gees-like two-tempo disco number plays. The two of them dance together in exaggerated fashion for the camera, looking at us, dancing in slow motion. Never mind that the two of them, both in their mid-60s, are more than a little stiff and don't appear to need help with the slow motion. They look like they're thrilled to be there, and Ozon, the idolizing younger director, is happy to indulge.
The movie has a story: Based on an old stage play, it's set in the mid-1970s. The blinding Brady Bunch colors and polyester clothes are present and accounted for (full props to designers Katia Wyszkop and Pascaline Chavanne), but we're in a provincial factory town. Deneuve is Suzanne Pujol, the heiress to an umbrella factory (google "Deneuve" and "umbrella" if you don't recognize the reference). We learn that Deneuve is a "potiche," or trophy wife. She isn't taken seriously by her husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who expects her to be content with her jogs through the neighborhood and the sentimental poems she writes. Robert runs the umbrella factory with a cruel hand—and uses his other hand to feel up his secretary (an excellent Karin Viard), with whom he's been having a long-term affair. He's the ne plus ultra of a male chauvinist pig, without a single redeeming quality. He's supposed to be funny in his horribleness, kind of like Dabney Coleman (remember him?) in Nine to Five and various misbegotten 1980s sitcoms. But something is lost in translation.
There is labor unrest at the umbrella factory, but Robert becomes seriously ill, so Deneuve reluctantly steps into what is supposed to be temporary stewardship of the company. Slowly—and surprise, surprise— she turns out to be a strong and empathetic leader of men and an inspiration to women. Her adult children (Jérémie Renier and Judith Godrèche) come to see her in a new light, while her work in navigating the labor issues leads her to the town's leading Communist politician, Maurice Babin (Depardieu).
What may be surprising to those of us who experienced the last half century of French history through its movies is that French women had to fight the same battles for respect in the home and the workplace that English-speaking women did in that era. (Thanks in no small measure to the likes of Bardot, Moreau, Karina, Miou-Miou, Huppert and, yes, Deneuve, one could be forgiven for thinking that most French women were sexy sophisticates who tended to hang out with criminals). But in fact, Deneuve herself is associated with a notorious act of defiance by French women in 1971: Alongside ordinary women and such luminaries as Moreau, Simone de Beauvoir, Franoise Sagan and Marguerite Duras, Deneuve attested to having had an illegal abortion. The "Manifesto of the 343" (also known ironically, and crudely, as the "manifesto of the 343 salopes"—bitches, or sluts) contributed to the repeal of the ban on first-trimester abortions in 1974.
Still, despite the bright colors and righteous politics, this comic story of a woman's awakening consciousness is chiefly interesting for those who have long memories of the two principal actors. Deneuve's career goes back to the 1960s and Jacques Demy, Roman Polanski, Franois Truffaut and Luis Buñuel, while younger people associate Depardieu with popular French films of the 1980s—perhaps the last time French movies were regularly throwing their weight around in the art houses. He played Jean de Florette, Rodin, Christopher Columbus, Cyrano de Bergerac, Honoré de Balzac and, inevitably, Jean Valjean. He was Gérard of France, a burly, earthy actor of the people.
But even for those ready for a sentimental wallow, this movie is a bit of a booby prize. Depardieu today is portly, with a cauliflower nose, and here he wears a silly Prince Valiant haircut and a dopey expression. He's playing an aging proletarian firebrand who'd once had a fling with Suzanne, but he exudes the air of a simpleton. You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago (to quote another old-timer who has a 70th birthday this week).
Catherine Deneuve isn't quite 70, yet in the film she somehow carries off the task of playing a 50-year-old. (Well, not really. A crucial event occurred 25 years previously, when her character was in her mid-20s. Although this incident is the basis of the film's best running joke, the arithmetic doesn't square up with Deneuve's present appearance.)
Director Ozon is—or was—a little like a French Todd Haynes: Both are gay filmmakers with a studiously avant-garde bent, but Haynes' theoretical preoccupations tend to show, no matter what his subject is. Although Ozon has genuflected at the shrine of 1970s German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who was mostly gay) and made some effectively mysterious art movies (See the Sea, Under the Sand, Swimming Pool), he seems more at ease with the imperatives of making a pop film. With Potiche, Ozon seems to be aiming for the effortless celebrations of female trouble achieved by Pedro Almodóvar. But Deneuve is far too regal and restrained to really cut loose like an Almodóvar heroine. As a result, this film is less about a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown than one on the verge of breaking a nail.