April 04, 2011

MOVIES: Potiche (Francois Ozon, 2010/US 2011)

In French, a potiche is a vase with purely decorative value, and the word is slang for (roughly) "trophy wife."

And that's the role Suzannne Pujol (Catherine Denueve) finds herself in as the movie opens. It's 1977, and her husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), is running the family umbrella factory (founded by her father) into the ground, angering the workers with his tyrannical ways and provoking strikes at every turn. (Do you suppose the umbrellas are an homage of sorts to Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg?)

But when Robert is hospitalized, Suzanne is forced to step outside the home and take over. Her common sense and good nature make her a natural leader, and she resolves the union problems with surprising ease, setting up a power struggle when Robert returns.

Throw in Gerard Depardieu as the local mayor/member of Parliament (and Suzanne's former one-day fling), Judith Godreche as the Pujols' conservative daughter, and Jeremie Renier as their artistic son, and you've got all the makings for a breezy little comedy.

Unfortunately, the jokes barely reach even the limited depth that "breezy" would suggest. Ozon never goes beyond the broadest sitcom strokes, and he is content to skim the surface of what could be a more complicated and interesting story. The cast is fine; Deneuve is as lovely and charming as ever, and Luchini blusters and fumes effectively. There are a few amusing moments, but Potiche mostly feels like a series of missed opportunities.

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