North of France, Sainte-Gudule, 1977. Suzanne (Catherine Deneuve) is the submissive, housebound wife of wealthy industrialist Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini), who oversees his umbrella factory with an iron fist and is equally tyrannical with his children and 'trophy housewife’. When the workers go on strike and take Robert hostage, Suzanne steps in to manage the factory. To everyone’s surprise, she proves herself a competent and assertive woman of action. But when Robert returns from a restful cruise in top form, things get complicated...
A screwball comedy of female empowerment, Potiche marks a partial return to form for writer/director Francois Ozon, whose prolific output doesn't always live up to its hype. In Potiche (literally, 'trophy wife’), Ozon crafts a goofy political satire into an affectionate retrospective for its leading lady, Catherine Deneuve.
Deneuve rises above caricature as the trophy wife of the title, Suzanne Pujol, the over-coiffed and overlooked heiress to a thriving umbrella empire. Europe’s notoriously inclement weather has afforded her a lavish lifestyle but her rudderless existence has led to an unspoken estrangement from her two children, and from the philandering husband who now runs her father’s company.
A wage dispute escalates into prolonged industrial action and brings storm clouds of an unwelcome variety for the chief executive of the umbrella company. The irascible tyrant Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini) refuses to negotiate with the frustrated workers and suffers a mild heart attack when they briefly take him hostage. Incapacitated, he installs Suzanne as a temporary chief executive, but only after exhausting all possible alternatives.
Suzanne identifies with the dissatisfied workers and offers a number of concessions that make short work of the wage dispute. With renewed vigour, she embarks on a period of expansion and development – both of the company and of her circumstances. Her efforts with the former pay dividends to the latter, and lead to mutual flirtation with an old beau, communist party organiser Babin (Gerard Depardieu).
Ozon’s script is riddled with good natured ribbing of its stars, including ample references to both of their saucy pasts. Deneuve’s previous on-screen turn as an umbrella proprietor in a French provincial town of Cherbourg is but one of the many audience in-jokes.
Potiche is described as a 'free adaptation’ by director Ozon, of the eponymous play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy. There are knowing allusions to current economic and political turmoil in France, and director Ozon has admitted that his observations of 2007 French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, helped to inform Suzanne’s political aspirations. His adaptation retains the play’s original mid-70s setting and this helps to provide a comical distance, and to capitalise on the turbulent civil upheavals of that era.
Period touches are all around excellent and extend to non-specific 'retro’ production design, curvy typography and an abundance of plaid woollen costuming on its cast.
The film celebrates the notion that we’re all brothers and sisters in arms, and a running gag about uncertain paternity gives the idea goofy literalism.