Potiche is a delightful chique flique or peut-être une comédie romantique starring two of France’s biggest stars, Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu. Mostly it is Deneuve’s show, as the trophy wife (la potiche) Suzanne Pujol who realizes her real potential when she takes the reins at her family’s umbrella factory (a nod to Deneuve’s classic Umbrellas of Cherbourg) after her philandering husband has a heart attack. Set in 1977, the film is full of women’s lib moments and silly 70s pop culture references, including a scene where Deneuve and Depardieu disco à la Saturday Night Fever.
When we first meet Suzanne, she is taking her morning run, hair in curlers under a stylish scarf, decked out in a coordinated tracksuit. She pauses to jot a silly poem about some cute wildlife in her tiny notebook and then runs on home to her boring life as trophy wife to hubby Robert who clearly doesn’t think she has any real purpose except to take care of him. But when the workers go on strike because of the tyrannical way he runs the factory and they take him hostage, Suzanne not only negotiates his freedom, but after he comes home and has a heart attack, she takes over as boss – just until he is well enough to come back. Suzanne’s first order of business is to make peace with the workers and so she enlists the help of Maurice (Depardieu), a former union boss and now the town’s mayor, with whom she has a brief but steamy history, which neither has forgotten.
Once Suzanne has smoothed things out at the factory, she realizes that she likes the job; she has even hired her son and daughter and they have the place running better than ever. But her husband returns and wants back in, pitting her children against each other. The film deals with feminism, classism and the vagaries of modern relationships with a very light brush. Suzanne’s husband may be having a long running relationship with his secretary Nadège, but when it comes to allegiances, she stands with her sister Suzanne. And this being a comedy, Suzanne comes out on top.
This is not a laugh out loud funny movie, but just watching Denueve and Depardieu is worth the price of admission. Potiche is an updated adaptation of a 70s play and the attention to detail about the period is itself hilarious. (There is a corduroy covered telephone in one scene.) Throughout the movie there are silly musical numbers, ending with Deneuve herself singing a song with the chorus of “life is good.” It is a quirky film, but thoroughly entertaining. Deneuve has great comedic timing and the camera still loves her.