Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Alas, these umbrellas are not from Cherbourg

Potiche” is a sadly disappointing film. Like many an American film, its best lines are in the trailers. But this is a French film, this is François Ozon (whose “Swimming Pool” was absorbing and daring), this is Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu. I expected sophistication and wit. I got a tired film about the changes of the late 1970s thirty years too late.

Potiche is a French term for trophy wife, which is what Catherine Deneuve plays in the first part of this film. She is Suzanne Pujol neé Michonneau. Her husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini) runs her late father’s umbrella business, her “dowry.” He is terse, insulting, and cheats constantly. Luchini is reliably slappable and just right for this role. Their married daughter Joelle (Judith Godrèche) is flip, disrespectful and unkind to her mother, adoring of her father. Jérémie Renier plays her son, appearing at least a decade too old for the role. He’s clearly gay from the get go, but no one seems to notice, including himself. Perhaps this is what the film is about? Well, no. Neither he nor his mother figure that out until the end when all the little ribbons have been tied up in expected fashion.

Really, most of the people in this film are just awful, except for Suzanne, whom it is hard to like because she’s a dishrag. And then the factory workers go on strike, take the obnoxious Robert hostage, he eventually suffers an attack of some sort, and Suzanne takes the reins of the business. She is a born leader, loves her workers as her father had before her, and she turns the business around. Everything’s lovely until her husband returns. All quite predictable.

Gérard Depardieu plays a business owner’s enemy, a political officeholder of the Communist Party. Over twenty years before, he and Suzanne, from diametrically opposed social classes, had a very brief fling – too brief to call an affair. Depardieu is even more disappointing than the film, his facial expressions plastered on, his line readings leaping from dull to over the top. He encourages Suzanne to run the factory in her husband’s absence, and clearly hopes for more.

Karin Viard is marvelous, sharp, witty, sad, and hopeful as Pujol’s secretary and long-time mistress. While one would consider the adulterous secretary and the wronged wife to be natural enemies, they work happily together at the factory and promise to continue later on. Suzanne gives dictation as they walk through a factory that now manufactures bright red umbrellas, which of course make us think of Cherbourg. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to make this charming.

The only part of this film that is not predictable is the dreadful music. When Suzanne wins an election at the end of the film, she sings. At home, her husband, her pregnant daughter and the Pujols' two grandchildren watch her on television. Depardieu listens to her rapturously. It’s saccharine and sophomoric.

Back in 1983, Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy wrote a TV movie called “Potiche.” Perhaps it worked then. This 2010 release was loosely based on that and is credited to Barillet, Grédy, and Ozon. It is possible that this film could have been witty in the 1980s, but not in the 21st century.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Clearly not nostalgic for the 1970s or 1980s, I’m going to listen to some rock or blues or anything unlike the music in the film, thankful those days are long gone.

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