The word "potiche," we are told, describes an attractive, not particularly functional, knickknack – and, by extension, is vernacular for "trophy wife." The potiche in François Ozon's new comedy of the same name is Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve, certainly a trophy of the highest order). Her husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), runs the umbrella company Suzanne inherited from her father. Whereas Dad was a kindly, paternalistic boss (I'd like to believe such creatures once roamed the earth, but I've never met one myself), Robert is all business. He sees the workers not as family but as enemies.
Ozon initially presents Suzanne as a fairy-tale character, composing pastoral ditties and talking cheerily to birds and squirrels, like an early Disney heroine. She doesn't seem surprised or particularly offended when Robert contemptuously – though in his eyes, lovingly – dismisses her as a potiche.
But everything turns around when Robert collapses during a period of labor troubles. His doctors insist he take a restful vacation, and Suzanne is pressed into running the business. When she turns out to be a more effective CEO than Robert, everyone – including Suzanne – is delighted ... except, of course, Robert, who returns and struggles to regain control.
For nearly a decade, Ozon's films – at least those released in the United States – have been deadly serious affairs, like "Hideaway" and "Time to Leave." Here he returns to the comic mode of "Sitcom" (1998), which first brought him to international attention. His script is adapted from a 1980 stage hit by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, who also wrote the plays later refashioned by Hollywood into "40 Carats" and "Cactus Flower."
Ozon has retained the late '70s time frame of the original. While the clothing styles and music may seem quaint and dated, some of the underlying social/political issues – sad to say – don't. The struggle between Robert and his rebellious workers seems more relevant in the US today than it might have a few years ago.
Luchini's high-strung performance clashes uncomfortably with the other actors, as though he's accidentally wandered in from a much broader farce. Unlike the others, Robert comes across as a caricature. Toward the end, it feels as though Ozon wants to generate audience sympathy for him, but it's too little and way too late.
Gérard Depardieu shows up as the local mayor and member of parliament – from the French Communist Party, no less – who has long carried a torch for Suzanne. He and Deneuve have made at least a half dozen films together, dating back to "The Last Metro" (1980), and their styles are much more in synch than Luchini is with anyone.
For its first two-thirds, "Potiche" is a frothy delight. Perhaps Ozon is (for better or worse) mellowing with age; "Potiche" and "Sitcom" are both attacks on the bourgeoisie, but "Potiche" is far more genial, with little of the dark satirical edge that distinguished the earlier film.
But "Potiche" loses its way in the third act, as events resolve less happily than one might expect, given the light tone that's been established. An upbeat final scene – almost reprising the Disneyfied opening – is more unsatisfying and awkward than uplifting. Grade: B (Rated R for some sexuality.)