“Potiche”: entertaining film features stars, strikes, class struggle

Movie Review

Directed by Francois Ozon
Starring Catherine Deneuve and
Gerard Depardieu
2010, France, 103 mins.

Cinema often reflects, predicts and influences what’s happening in the world. We appear to be entering a period of global upsurge similar to 1968: mass uprisings spreading from North Africa and the Middle East to the Midwest. As Vietnam vet Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone’s 1989 antiwar classic Born on the Fourth of July) declared on stage at the March 19 anti-war rally in Hollywood, “The power of the people is unbeatable. We see it in Tunisia, Cairo. We are not exempt in this country from sweeping change… It can happen here… We are moving into a period of great change.”

In recent years, the movies have been addressing social upheaval. Cut in the merry mode of Karel Reisz’s 1966 Marxian madcap Morgan!, Canadian writer-director Jacob Tierney’s uproarious 2009 The Trotsky stars Jay Baruchel as a Montreal high school student who fantasizes he’s the reincarnation of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and sets about trying to organize a union at his dad’s factory. The 2010 British film Made in Dagenham stars Sally Hawkins as a factory worker who leads a real-life strike for equal wages and women’s rights. And just now a re-mastered version of Sergei Eisenstein’s immortal 1925 Potemkin is being theatrically released.

Now that quintessence of French femininity, the exquisite Catherine Deneuve, is getting into the act. Writer-director Francois Ozon’s Potiche, based on a play by Barilet and Gredy, is the latest addition to the growing cinematic strike wave. Deneuve’s Suzanne Pujol is related to the owners of an umbrella factory in a French provincial town, formerly owned by her late, paternalistic father, and now run by her despotic, reactionary, philandering hubby, Robert (Fabrice Luchini).

The French word “potiche” translates as “a vase or decorative object of little value,” but idiomatically stands for Suzanne’s role as a bourgeois trophy wife, mother, and homemaker (with the help of the help, mais oui). When first seen onscreen, Denueve, long renowned for her unearthly beauty, looks positively shlumpy. Initially, I felt disheartened to see the Chanel model and actress looking so plain: Since Luis Buñuel’s 1967 surrealist classic Belle de Jour, she has exemplified “class” and elegance for a generation of viewers.

But as strikes sweep her family’s factory in 1977, Suzanne finds inner resources of resolve, and there’s more to this ornamental madame than meets the eye. She seeks out Babin (Gerard Depardieu, another heavyweight of French cinema), the mayor who is a member of the French Communist Party (PCF), to amicably settle the brewing brouhaha. Here, the story takes an unexpected turn, in terms of the relationship between the proletarian man of the people and the bourgeois do-gooder.

Once Suzanne enters the fray, she becomes transformed, psychologically as well as physically, as Deneuve’s renowned radiance returns to illumine the screen. Finding her footing, Suzanne transcends the economic realm and enters politics.

In fact, the politics of Potiche are peculiar. Suzanne rejects right-wing austerity economics (a knowing nod to today’s dire crises). But the film does not see Babin’s PCF as an alternative, either. Depardieu (who in 1983 portrayed the title role in the Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s film Danton about the French revolutionary) depicts Babin with empathy. He has several good lines about being a devoted lifelong leftist who may never live to see the revolution he’s dreamt of and worked for. But Depardieu’s obesity, never commented upon onscreen, may be an oblique criticism of a sclerotic bureaucracy that has grown fat off the class struggle and union dues.

Like Daniel “Danny the Red” Cohn-Bendit’s Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative, written in the wake of the historic May 1968, worker-student revolt in France, Potiche seeks a third way, another path between the traditional right and left. But instead of opting for anarchy as Dany le Rouge did, Potiche chooses a combination of feminism and Suzanne’s late father’s paternalism – a sort of matriarchal maternalism.

Even if Potiche’s politics aren’t precisely your cup of tea, it’s a heady brew of comedy, romance, class struggle and song – yes, the great Deneuve proves she is an enchanting chanteuse as well as a stellar actress. And it’s a kick to see those French cinema stalwarts Depardieu and Deneuve, who first co-starred in Francois Truffaut’s 1980 anti-Nazi The Last Metro, reunited onscreen. The delightful Potiche tackles the class war in an extremely entertaining, thought-provoking, funny way. Don’t miss it.

Image: Deneuve shines in Potiche.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.