The old cliché is that there are no good parts for older women in Hollywood, and that for every Helen Mirren hosting SNL there are hundreds of female actresses who might as well check their sagging behinds for an expiration date. So it should come as no surprise that Potiche, the story of an aging trophy wife (67-year-old Catherine Deneuve) who is forced out of her shell and into the boardroom, is an import from France. The film gives Deneuve a long and meaty character arc (especially rare in a farcical comedy like this), and the actress delivers with a sly, fun performance — even if the film is a little too whimsical for its own good.
Set in 1977, Potiche opens with Deneuve a seemingly naive, jogging suit-clad housewife doing her daily exercise and writing bad poetry about the animals she encounters on her walks. Deneuve's husband, Mr. Pujol (Fabrice Luchini), runs the umbrella company founded by her father and he's got a hornet's nest of union troubles at the factory. The workers are demanding year-end bonuses, a 40-hour workweek and more paid vacation, while Mr. Pujol would be content to downsize the operation and maximize profits by shipping the jobs to Tunisia.
To be blunt: Mr. Pujol is an asshole. He's a philanderer, beyond condescending to his wife, absent from the lives of his children, quick to violence, hardheaded and a scourge of a boss. When he hears his workers have called a strike, he rushes to the factory looking to punch someone out. Being a man of slight stature and weak heart, Mr. Pujol is quickly roughed up by the strikers and taken hostage, leaving a vacuum of leadership and no one to negotiate. The Pujols have two kids: an effete, arty son (Jérémie Renier — no, not the guy from Hurt Locker) with lefty political leanings who wants nothing to do with management, and a cold daughter (Judith Godrèch) who seems to be following in her mother's housewife footsteps, but with her father's temperament.
That leaves Mrs. Pujol, who — with the help of a communist member of parliament (Gérard Depardieu) with whom she shares a murky past — gets her ailing husband released from captivity and admitted to a hospital. Soon she's negotiating with the striking workers, and despite those around her questioning her every decision, Mrs. Pujol quickly charms the men and gets the factory running again. While her husband is sent on a three-month sabbatical to recover his health, Mrs. Pujol makes improvements, including bettering conditions for the workers, hiring her son to create a new (and popular) line of designer umbrellas, and finally utilizing the skills of Mr. Pujol's long-suffering secretary (Karin Viard) for something other then fellatio. Everything is going great until a recovered Mr. Pujol returns to Paris and decides he wants his old job back, pitting husband against wife, tearing at the seams of the family and dredging up all kinds of youthful indiscretions better left in the past.
I mentioned that Potiche is a comedy, right? Only the French could find a way to successfully combine political debate, sex farce and family drama without sending audiences running from the theaters. Some of Potiche is sure to cause cultural dissonance with American viewers; I was particularly annoyed by a subplot involving a forest tryst, a weird Deneuve-Depardieu dance number and a soundtrack loaded with annoying music. I would also add that, for better or worse, nothing in Potiche will alter any preconceived notions you may have about the French.
All that said, Potiche is a movie worth seeing for both the quality of the performances and because it's so far outside the mainstream of American film. Director François Ozon has fashioned a beautiful-looking film (the use of primary colors is striking) that lovingly recreates 1970s France in all its garish splendor. Actors Depardieu and Luchini help keep the film from devolving into a sitcom, but this is Deneuve's show and she owns it. A star in France since the mid-1960s, Deneuve is clearly delighted with her role and she makes the most of it, elevating Potiche to a worthwhile cinematic distraction.