Monday, March 21, 2011

Ozon’s Potiche

There have not been a lot of films made about umbrellas, but it makes sense to cast Catherine Deneuve in each and every one of them. Indeed, François Ozon tries to recreate some of the spirit of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (right, good luck with that). Still, he achieves an engaging retro-1970’s vibe in his period battle of the sexes and classes, Potiche (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Deneuve’s Suzanne Pujol is the “Potiche,” or trophy wife in American parlance. As the daughter of her husband’s umbrella factory owner boss, she was also something of the brass ring for Robert. Now he runs the factory with an iron fist. If he wants an opinion from his workers, he’ll give it to them. All Robert Pujol is missing is the big Monopoly Man cigar.

Not surprisingly, Pujol clashes frequently with Babin, the Communist mayor and MP for the district. It is not just a matter of ideology though. Babin has a bit of history with his wife. Wound way too tight, Pujol finally has that big Fred Sanford heart attack. With hubby laid up, Madame Pujol takes the factory reins, using the more cooperative methods of her fondly remembered father. She also has an in for dealing with the workers’ unofficial rep, Babin. Frankly, it all works much too well for her husband’s liking. Family drama ensues.

Potiche is probably the lightest, frothiest excursion into class warfare one will see on-screen for foreseeable future. The film nails the disco-dancing tracksuit-wearing 1970’s ambiance and it is always worth the price of admission to watch to legendary pros like Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu circle each other flirtatiously (but if you’ve seen him lately, you know she has her work cut out for her). Unfortunately, Fabrice Luchini is not able to counterbalance (don’t go there) Depardieu, as the rather clichéd and deliberately unlikable Pujol. By playing favorites on behalf of the leftist mayor, Ozon’s skews the film a bit too much for its own good. After all, the whole point seems to be only Suzanne Pujol has the wisdom and grace to chart a Harold Macmillan-esque middle way between the extremes represented by both men.

Still, Deneuve and Depardieu are not legends for nothing. Their “if only” romantic chemistry works on a smartly adult level. You also have to love the groovy umbrellas designed by Pujol’s searching-for-himself son Laurent (these are for you Cherbourg fans). A light and pleasant outing for two of France’s biggest stars (but hardly a treatise on industrial organization), Potiche should satisfy Francophiles when it opens this Friday (3/25) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.