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.

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