A potiche is a useless ornament, in sexist language a ‘trophy wife’. It’s a brave man who would ever describe Catherine Deneuve as a ‘trophy’. But that’s the premise of François Ozon’s entertaining and beautifully made film, an adaptation of a ‘boulevard comedy’ first staged ten years ago or more (Ozon says ten, but Ginette Vincendau in Sight and Sound says it dates from 1983 or earlier). Boulevard theatre is solid middle-class middlebrow entertainment, traditionally despised by film critics but often popular with the public and with certain film directors. Ozon himself has got form in this type of comedy with 8 Women (France 2002) – his previous outing with Catherine Deneuve.
The plot involves a bourgeois family who own an umbrella factory in a small town. The factory boss Pujol is a tyrant who has control because his wife is the daughter of the company’s founder. The factory is going down the pan and the workforce is striking. At this point Pujol is taken ill and to her surprise Madame Pujol (Deneuve) finds herself in the driving seat. She proves to have an unusual ally in the local communist mayor and MP (Gérard Dépardieu) and soon has the factory moving forward. But Pujol recovers and wants his role back – the next generation of Pujols prove to be important in deciding how the factory will fare in the future.
As the still above illustrates, Mme Pujol finds herself in new relationships with both her daughter Joëlle and her husband’s secretary Nadège. This is the core of the film with a commentary on changing opportunities for women and I agree with Ozon and Deneuve that the narrative has plenty to say in contemporary discussion of gender equality, especially in relation to figures like Ségolène Royale and, God help us, Marine Le Pen.
I think that the film works on every level and I enjoyed it immensely. I’d pick out three reasons why: the tight and assertive direction which keeps up the pace, assured performances from a starry cast and excellent production design in evoking 1977 but making it seem vibrant not bathed in nostalgia. I particularly loved the designer umbrellas. The whole film was shot in Belgium, so it’s a great ad for the Belgian film industry.
It’s distressing that there are some negative reviews, mostly from younger audiences who seem bored by the film. It makes you wonder what modern audiences would make of Ozon’s hero, Rainer Werner Fassbinder who made similar but much darker films.
Here’s the trailer with a taste of the film: