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Potiche (Francois Ozon 2010) – Blu-ray / DVD review

October 3, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Forever destined to be the film from “that Orange subtitled ad,” which is apt considering that this is (probably) an experimental art-house prank about what happens when you take something out of its original context.

Potiche
(Francois Ozon, Fr, 2010)

The topical satire of yesteryear becomes the quaint crowd-pleaser of today…which might be the very point of Ozon’s endearingly fluffy comedy.

Francois Ozon is surely one of the hardest directors in the world to pin down. Sometimes he’s an agent provocateur (Sitcom), often experimental (backwards drama 5 x 2) and occasionally he’s an unashamed crowd-pleaser, taking a light-hearted farce, casting it with French legends and letting things pan out without an aspiration to the kind of thematic weight an “auteur” surely needs. Or is there more to Potiche than initially meets the eye?

In outline, this is a Gallic take on recent Britcom Made In Dagenham, another satire of feminism taking over the shopfloor at an old-school factory. Yet where the British film was based on a real-life story, giving it at least a veneer of kitchen-sink realism, this has no such desire at verisimilitude. The film is based on a 1970s stage play, and Ozon doesn’t hide the arch theatricality of the piece, allowing the performances to be broad and letting his camera glide elegantly around the actors while they share the screen. Period detail is used in a camp, almost musical way, with split-screen, bouffant hair, flamboyant costumes and even a charming disco-dancing set-piece. The fact that Catherine Deneuve is starring in a story which takes place in an umbrella factory can’t help but recall The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

The story takes big themes about gender roles and the class struggle… and turns them into a romp about marital indiscretions and the fantasy that the immaculate potiche (a trophy wife) can simply charm a strike into submission. It is very enjoyable, mostly because Ozon’s style recognises the gap between the material as it was originally intended – a topical comedy – and the unutterably dated frolic it is now. Ozon works with the clichés, to the point where the entire film is almost an art-college prank about the passage of time. The result is that the past – a world where Communists and bourgeoisie swap insults while everybody admits to l’amour fou – is kind of fun when divorced from the crapness of living through those times.

The gag works, of course, because the stars really were there – and the performances of Catherine Deneuve and Gerald Depardieu thrive on the sly hint that they’re now playing the parents of characters they might have played in a 1970s production of this story. That said, they’ve lucked out by waiting thirty-odd years. Deneuve is wry and flirtatious, Depardieu a dancing bear: two elder statespeople allowed to behave badly. Both are deliciously entertaining, although the film is stolen by veteran comic bad-guy Fabrice Luchini as Deneuve’s husband.

It’s a shame that the film can’t sustain its sparkle – but that be part of Ozon’s purpose, too. Having written itself into a corner, the story takes a sharp narrative detour that turns the personal into the political in order to make a wider statement about a shift in Western culture. It must have looked incredibly futuristic and prescient at the time, but which now offers zero surprise or thematic weight. The very fidelity of Ozon’s approach exposes a gap in audience expectations. Back then, nobody minded a lecture; today, if you don’t mind, we’d prefer to stick to the kind of frivolity from which a mobile phone ad might be crafted.

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