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Merely Ornamental 

French comedy 'Potiche' would be better off as a more serious film

In America, of course, we have the Academy Awards. The French equivalent is the César Awards, and it's a safe bet that Anne Hathaway and James Franco would be lousy choices to host that, too.

The stars of Potiche, Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, have between them a whopping 27 César nominations to go along with four wins, with Deneuve earning her 11th nomination for this performance.

While we're on the subject of equivalencies: With 16 César nods, the most in history, Depardieu is evidently the French Meryl Streep. Sacrebleu!

In Potiche, Depardieu and Deneuve play former lovers who, 25 years later, now find themselves on opposite sides of a labor dispute. Her family umbrella business, begun by her father and passed on by marriage to her husband, is more profitable than ever, due in large part to the company siphoning rights and money away from the workers. Though not fully in support of her husband's methods, Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve) does not want to see the business eroded by labor strikes encouraged by former union organizer Maurice Babin (Depardieu). As the fate of the umbrella factory comes to a head, so do 20-odd years of things left unsaid between the two.

On the surface, the movie is a comedy, although it would probably be better if it weren't. The title, Potiche, is meant to signify a trophy wife; it roughly translates to "an ornamental vase." However, it is nearly impossible to think of Catherine Deneuve in those terms, and she does not stay on the shelf very long in the film. The strikes contribute to her husband's failing health, so Suzanne steps in to take charge of the company, meeting the labor unions in the middle and giving the factory a few womanly touches along the way.

Some of that is just her nature, but a fair percentage is also an act of defiance against her husband (Fabrice Luchini), a philandering fathead who deserves this comeuppance. The action is set in 1977, and a message of female empowerment seems right in line with the time.

This is where a film that is not aiming to be a comedy would take a quantum leap, but Potiche doesn't. The film commands only so much of Deneuve, and anything after the first hour requires very little of the viewer or the actors. While it is difficult to fairly evaluate any film for what it isn't trying to be, Potiche nonetheless feels like it often zigs when it should zag. The power play for control of the factory could be a cozy half-hour of screen time instead of a couple of scenes, and there is far less confrontation between the husband and wife than the situation warrants.

Potiche is the latest film from François Ozon, a director of the most recent French new wave, who has been fortunate enough to get three films on the radar in the United States in his first decade of work. The sprightly murder-musical-comedy 8 Women co-starred Deneuve, and it's a terrific, well-appointed, engaging piece of fluff. Like Potiche, that film was based on a stage play. Ozon also hit cinemas the next year with the barely dressed whodunit, Swimming Pool.

In comparison to those, Potiche doesn't demonstrate that it has very much on its mind. The period touches are nice enough, but making a movie that takes place in 1977 look like 1977 is to be expected. There is never the sense that this film, like his others, has a stamp of individuality or even clarity.

It's amusing at times, and Deneuve, when pressed, obviously can still perform with the best of them—but Potiche really isn't much more than an ornamental vase after all.

Potiche
Rated R · 103 minutes · 2010
Official Site: www.potichemovie.com
Director: François Ozon
Producer: Eric Altmeyer, Nicolas Altmeyer and Genevieve Lemal
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Karin Viard, Judith Godrèche, Jérémie Renier, Sergi López, Évelyne Dandry and Bruno Lochet

Trailer


More by Colin Boyd

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What others are saying (5)

Style Weekly Foreign Affairs "Potiche" serves up risqué French comedy for those stuck in 1977. by Wayne Melton 05/24/2011
Indy Week Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu star in nostalgic comedy Potiche 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. by David Fellerath 05/25/2011
Charleston City Paper Catherine Deneuve proves she’s more than a trophy wife in Potiche The year is 1977, and change is in the air in Ozon's frothy and defiant feminist farce Potiche, a French term for trophy wife. by Felicia Feaster 05/18/2011
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