It should already be evident to anyone who follows the films of François Ozon that the French director makes two kinds of film – serious relationship dramas dealing with subjects like bereavement (Under The Sand), terminal illness (Time to Leave), marriage conflict (5x2) and pregnancy (The Refuge), and then there are the films that are kind of quirky and lightweight in nature (8 Women, Swimming Pool, Angel, Ricky). It’s not too difficult from an outline description of the plot to work out that Potiche (Trophy Wife), a battle of the sexes comedy set in the most chauvinistic of decades – the 70s – belongs to the latter category. Potiche is indeed a light entertainment with a cast featuring some of France’s best-loved actors effortlessly going through their paces, and watched on that level there is much to enjoy in the film. Ozon however, I would argue, doesn’t make any lightweight films. If anything, his comedy films actually have a subtext that is just as dark and bitter as his more serious films – if not even more so – it’s just that he dresses them up a little better.
You could hardly dress-up Potiche any better however than having the first couple of French cinema, Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu (not a couple in real-life, although they have appeared in no less than eight films together), slip comfortably into the main roles in the film alongside Fabrice Luchini, Judith Godrèche and Jérémie Renier. Deneuve is the “potiche” of the film, Suzanne, the trophy wife of Robert Pujol (Luchini) a successful industrialist who manufactures umbrellas. The company is actually Suzanne’s inheritance, founded by the Michonneau family, but obviously as a woman she can’t run a business, so she leaves the everyday executive decisions to her husband, while she enjoys the luxuries that being the wife of a successful businessman afford her. Robert however, isn’t really making a terribly good job of it.
While the company is successful, it’s not so much though any imaginative programme of growth and expansion, as much as at the expense of the employees who keep seeing their pay and working conditions cut under the draconian rule of their boss. Ruling with an iron fist, Robert is however determined to resist the entreaties of the local Communist mayor Maurice Babin (Depardieu) and crush the unions who are threatening to strike. When Robert succumbs to the pressures of his job and is forced by illness to take a break, Suzanne, the trophy wife, has to step in during this delicate stage of negotiations with the union and, not surprisingly, she shows that a woman can make a better job of it than her husband.
Adapted from a popular boulevard theatre drama by Barillet and Grédy, there are evidently other affairs and complications that arise due to Robert’s philandering ways with women, and particularly with his secretary Nadège (Karin Viard). And it seems that, for all her dignified matriarchal presence, Suzanne has a bit of history as well which, when it eventually rises to the surface, results in some enjoyable farce when the tables are turned. Like Ozon’s other theatrical adaptations (Water Drops on Burning Rocks and 8 Women), the director however unmistakably places his own stamp on the material, as do, inevitably, Deneuve and Depardieu. Watching the two of them step out on the floor of the Badaboom, a French discotheque, reliving their past is simply delightful, and there is poignancy in the past also when pictures of their younger selves are viewed together in a locket. Without slipping over completely into musical theatre (in the style of 8 Women),Ozon also introduces period songs which add another level of distancing irony and effect.
Viewed purely on that level, Potiche is a charming and delightful entertainment that is pitched perfectly in terms of performance and tone – slightly tongue-in-cheek, but fully allowing the audience to participate in the fun. Potiche is indeed populated with caricatures, and the viewer is invited to laugh at the absurd notions of the Communist mayor, the reactionary industrialist flirting with his secretary and the wife who knows her place is at home, without the film ever having to resorting to period pastiche or overloading it with camp irony. Should one want to however – and the film is so well constructed to play on the level of pure entertainment that it’s by no means necessary – one could see that there is a lot more to the film going on beneath the surface. Yes, the characters in the film may just be caricatures from a piece of popular theatre, but Potiche is as much about the world of today, about French politicians and their trophy wives, about masculinity and chauvinism in so-called modern French society. We can laugh at the characters in Potiche and see them as throwbacks to the chauvinistic seventies, but are attitudes in modern French society really any more enlightened with regards to family roles and sexual equality?
Well, one doesn’t need to look much further than Ozon’s clever treatment of the Pujol children, Joëlle and Paul, to realise that in some respects it’s the children who are the real subjects of the film. Rather than being a period piece about seventies, Potiche is as much about the current generation who grew up during that decade. For all the freedoms that are gained in the sexual liberation of the seventies, Paul never really comes to terms with being able to freely define his gay inclinations within the society that he is, while Joëlle by the end of the film, seems to be content to be pregnant and defer her own share of the hard won battle for equality to her husband who, as a male, needs that sense of self-validation more – an act that, since it is a wilful decision, proves to be an even more reactionary attitude than that of her parents’ generation.
If you consider Potiche in the light of Ozon’s other films, you can see also that it contains all the same attitudes towards absent, neglectful, abusive father figures, the corrupting nature of the family unit, and a suspicion regarding the sustainability of monogamous relationships between men and women, where the freedom of expression of one person in the relationship usually comes at the cost of suppression of the will of the other, whether it’s the man or the woman. There’s actually a very dark and bitter satirical tone to be found here if one is prepared to look deeper into Potiche (and indeed into the subtext of Ozon’s other apparently lightweight entertainments), but Ozon doesn’t encourage the viewer to look too deeply, or feel the need to express these ideas more openly. He seems happy to disguise the rather more subversive elements of his work within a superbly crafted and deceptively whimsical piece, yet Potiche wouldn’t be half as good or half as funny where there not some deeper element of truth that the viewer can relate to within the carefully thought-through and realistic characterisation. It’s such an approach that paradoxically sees Ozon regarded as one of the best filmmakers in France today, while at the same time seriously underrates his true abilities.