Based on a boulevard comedy that was a stage hit in Paris in the 1970s, Francois Ozon's Potiche is a curiosity that is neither funny nor striking enough to live up to its ambitions.
The most striking thing about it, in fact, is the ballooning gut of Gerard Depardieu, whose barge-like girth is truly astonishing.
The film's central figure is Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve), so-called trophy wife (or potiche, in French) of the owner of an umbrella factory, Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini).
(Obviously, the term "trophy wife" meant something extremely different in the 1970s, when the film is set. It apparently referred to a wife who did no housework, left child-rearing to nannies and otherwise was treated as an accessory, as opposed to its current meaning: a young hottie for which a middle-aged man dumps a wife like Suzanne to show that he is both rich and macho enough to do so.)
Tired of not being taken seriously (at a moment when feminism is on the rise), Suzanne jumps at the chance to replace her husband running the factory. His health has collapsed as the result of being taken hostage by his workers during a strike; Suzanne (whose father started the factory) steps in to negotiate with the strikers and to run the factory while her husband is recuperating.
This brings her into close contact with Maurice Babin (Depardieu), the local mayor and member of parliament who is also a socialist labor leader. The pair of them once shared a romantic moment when both of them were much younger; Babin has gone on to make politics his life. But he is drawn to Suzanne and the possibility of having the kind of life he gave up.
Eventually, her husband comes back from his recuperation - and is shocked when Suzanne does not want to give up her position running the company. The rest of the film focuses on his machinations to regain control and her response, along with farcical elements about her past sexual history and the true father of her children.
But it's as if Ozon systematically went through and stripped the script of humor. While the structure is for farce, the writing and acting are never particularly comedic. Both Luchini and Depardieu work mightily to invest their performances with humor, but Ozon's tone and approach consistently tamp that impulse down.
The resulting film is, at best, a curiosity, a movie that offers three of France's brightest and most enduring acting stars in meaty roles. But it never seems to know what to do with them.
So Potiche could just as easily have been left on the shelf, a trophy of a different era whose time has past.
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