Catherine Deneuve radiates enough intelligence on-screen to be no one's idea of a mere trophy wife, but she makes a brave stab at playing one in Francois Ozon's brightly hued boulevard comedy Potiche.
The year is 1977, and Deneuve's Suzanne is the chirpy, docile and by all appearances empty-headed spouse of Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini), a philandering industrialist who brusquely condescends to her as he heads off each morning to torment employees at an umbrella factory inherited from Suzanne's father.
Suzanne, with servants in attendance and nothing much to occupy her now that the kids are grown and out of the house, spends her days writing poetry and communing with the squirrels she encounters on jogs in a scarlet tracksuit and curlers. She prides herself on always looking on the bright side, but she has been such a doormat for decades that even her children (Jeremie Renier and Judith Godreche) dismiss her as little more than a useless decorative object — une potiche.
But when Robert is taken hostage by his factory workers, Suzanne proves plenty capable. She persuades his sworn enemy Babon (Gerard Depardieu), a Communist union leader with whom she one shared a romantic interlude, to help her free him. And then, while hubby's off recuperating from his ordeal, she steps in to manage the factory, showing such a flair for business that production line and employees alike are humming happily. Until, that is, the workplace tyrant returns, expecting things to go back to the way they were.
Ozon's screenplay is an adaptation of a comedy by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy, the French team behind such midcentury star vehicles as Cactus Flower (which featured Lauren Bacall on Broadway, Ingrid Bergman on-screen), and Forty Carats (Julie Harris and Liv Ullman, respectively), and it's crafted in much the same star-adoring, proto-feminist vein as those comedies. That is to say, Potiche is sweet, affirmative, predictable and pretty hopelessly dated, even though Ozon has added a political coda — a nod, he's been saying in interviews, to the likes of Madame Chirac and Segolene Royal, who've been dismissed in some quarters as potiches — that allows the heroine to triumph far more decisively than she did onstage.
It's all still pretty silly, though. So it makes sense that the director approaches the story through a period lens, encouraging his cast to behave as if they were in a frothy '70s confection like Cousin Cousine or Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe and attiring his leading lady in candy-colored fashions that hail from perhaps a decade earlier, before designers started draping women in acres of paisley.
Despite the class and workplace markers thrown down in the setup scenes, the script's biggest jests center on revelations about sexual peccadilloes. Fun and nostalgia are the only aim, a point made clear when Ozon inserts a couple of musical numbers — one in a disco, the other at a campaign rally — for no better reason than that it gives him an excuse to have Deneuve and Depardieu (co-starring here for the seventh time) strike Saturday Night Fever poses while waltzing down memory lane.