BY: Ava Baccari
Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Judith Godrèche, Karin Viard and Jérémie Renier. Directed by François Ozon. 103 minutes. 14A (French)
It's lonely at the top for the trophy wife, whose life expectedly takes up the same hot-to-stone-cold sentiment as that golden statue perched on a cluttered shelf—once coveted and sparkling, now forgotten (and pretty dusty, too - ouch). Walled up in her domestic paradise, the potiche, which almost sounds classy in French, roams her castle in diamonds purchased with her husband's money, eating meals prepared by the hired help, and occasionally writes poetry. It's the seventies but the desperate housewife world Catherine Deneuve inhabits in Potiche, the latest film by French director François Ozon, captures the droning, lulled existence of a kept woman with only her things and now-adult children to stamp her time in this world.
The latest oeuvre from Parisan auteur Ozon (Under the Sand, 8 Women—also starring Deneuve) is loosely based on the eponymously titled play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, which plumbed the same themes of politically divisive, highly gendered and classist French society in the seventies. The film originally premiered at the Venice International Film Festival last summer, then skipped across the pond in September for its North American debut at TIFF. It's now screening at the Cumberland, here in Toronto.
In provincial France where the feminist movement is oh-so-slowly encroaching on the sprawling, patriarchal town, Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve, still resplendent in her sixties) leads a decidedly content lifestyle—full of pampering and the occasional pillow-fluffing, yet ultimately signifying nothing. At one point, she's visited by her daughter, Joëlle, (Judith Godrèche) who, with a likewise absentee husband, is forced to singlehandedly raise their two boys and is slipping into her mother's same housewife role. Yet when Madame Pujol confides that she's tired of batting a polished eye to husband's (Fabrice Luchini) indiscriminately indiscrete affairs—including a clichéd conjugal relationship with his secretary, Nadège (Karin Viard)—and admits she's flirting with the idea of divorce, her daughter warns that she'll be publicly shamed for such unprecedented, unwomanly behaviour.
But it's not just Suzanne stirring a rebellion against the iron-fisted, draconian rule of the tyrannical Monsieur Pujol. Fed up with the unbearable working conditions at his umbrella factory, the employees take their boss hostage when he refuses to hear their demands for drastic reform. Suzanne steps in to defuse the situation, freeing her husband, and resulting in the company shifting power to the Missus while he recovers from a stress-induced stroke. Seeking the support of her two children to helm the business, she hires her lefty, art-loving son Laurent (Jérémie Renier) and Joëlle, who turns out to be too much like daddy. Here, though, the film levies stereotype to her matronly, female rule—Chocolates all around! Coloured walls!—comprised of the typical cosmetic changes that ensue when a woman moves in on a man's territory.
Yet Suzanne is acutely aware of the power of her female charms—turns out she's had a few extra-marital liaisons of her own—and soon earns the respect of the mayor, Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu) a former factory employee and flame. When her husband attempts to seize back power from his wife, now wildly popular for her management style, Laurent prompts his mother to assert her place in the workforce, stating that “women everywhere are taking power.”
The film traces the raw, fledging wave of feminism that universally swept through and defined the politically charged decade and gave birth to the united front of sisterhood. Deneuve's strong, heart-breaking performance glazes over stretches of tedium that plague the second-half of the film, and prevents the narrative from falling into the trap of an underdog-rising trajectory. Instead, what is rendered is a layered, believable transition from fed-up housewife to quixotic heroine who permanently alters the game for women.
Liberated, coiffed, and armed with the support of people she's raised, either by birth or on the notions of humane, dignified interaction in all facets of life, the trophy wife stands as a powerful figure of change—just don't try to shelve her. A-