On a day in which former International Monetary Fund chief Dominque Strauss-Kahn—a Frenchman whose reputation with women earned him the nickname "The Great Seducer"—pled not guilty to seven charges of sexual assault, I can't help but think of the philandering antagonist of Potiche, and the bourgeois culture to which both men belong.
As the head of an umbrella factory that he inherited from his wife's father, Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini) is a bombastic twit of a man, inflicted with a raging sense of entitlement and a Napoleon complex that does not lend itself to effective managerial skills amid growing worker unrest. Pujol's misdeeds aren't criminal like those of alleged rapist DSK, but the two men share a similar moral compass. His justification for scores of affairs and mistresses over the decades is that his wife Suzanne (Catherine Deneuve) "has just accepted it." So extensive is the cheating that when Pujol discovers that their son is dating the daughter of a local baker, he is concerned the couple may be half siblings, thanks to one of those long-ago flings. Twenty-five years later he still sees nothing wrong with pulling Clinton-esque moves with his secretary while his wife sits in the adjacent room.
Robert's depravity makes it even easier to like the already amiable Suzanne. She is the potiche, a word that translates literally into a vase or other decorative object, but which also means "trophy wife" in French society. Suzanne is aware of the label—she even makes sad jokes about it as her husband criticizes her over breakfast—but there is a strange unwillingness to fight it, resigned as she is to a life of cleaning their mansion and sleeping in separate bedrooms.
Despite these heavy undertones of adultery and marital unhappiness, Potiche turns out to be fairly effective farce—a dark comedy that intertwines slapstick with more serious themes of women's rights and capitalism versus socialism. The film is set in 1977 in an un-named provincial French town. A violent worker's strike at the umbrella factory sets in motion a series of events that ends with Robert hospitalized and Suzanne anointed as the temporary factory leader. She assumes the position only after her son and daughter pass on the job. Nobody expects her to make any real decisions during her tenure.
But the factory workers love her. Gone is Robert's autocratic rule, replaced by Suzanne's willingness to actually negotiate with disgruntled employees seeking the grand European tradition of extra paid vacation, higher salaries, and a shorter work week. It's socialist satire, and Deneuve slips into the role of CEO with charm, motivated by those around her who continue to downplay the surging women's movement in France.
Not only is the film set in 1977, but Potiche actually feels like a film that was made 35 years ago. That's no criticism. There's a wonderful nightclub disco scene in which Suzanne dances with former flame and current Communist city mayor Maurice Babin (an uncomfortably heavy Gerard Depardieu) that's either an ironic rip-off or loving homage to Saturday Night Fever. Either way it's fantastic, and epitomizes a film that through its soundtrack, costumes, and general tone manages to capture a time and place as few period pieces do.
That's not to say everything works here. Potiche feels a bit too much like the adapted 1970s play that it is. Despite the authentic setting, there's an ebb and flow to the story that feels like it belongs on stage—and with only six main characters, it's easy to see why it took more than three decades for someone to attempt a screen version. The added value is limited.
It certainly helps here that there isn't a dud among the six actors, all of whom look like they're having a ball. With his boyish bowl cut and added weight, Depardieu is cartoonish in an endearing way as the earnest mayor who's still in love with Suzanne. But she's been jilted one too many times. As Maurice pursues her and Robert tries to keep the sham of a marriage intact, Suzanne has her eyes on other things—the company for one, public office for two.
Deneuve alone is good enough here to carry the film despite its faults. The character transformation from trophy wife to accomplished factory leader happens quickly—perhaps too fast to be entirely believable—but it's a flaw that can be overlooked. Potiche is best enjoyed as the farce that it is, buoyed by the charmingly resilient Suzanne.
Potiche continues at the Wilma Theatre.