Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Potiche (François Ozon, 2010) Review

Liberation, passion and politics meld in Ozon's Technicolour marvel Potiche (2010)

Potiche begins with the beautiful Catherine Deneuve, track-suited and repressing a fine 70's coiffure, jogging to the sound of what appears to be shopping channel music. It's 1977, in fact, and she marvels mid-flex at the sight of squirrels and deer joyously fleeting through the surrounding forests. The score softly crescendos into tinkling tones reminiscent of melodrama, and she begins to be inspired, writing poetry into a little black notebook. Like the animals, she thinks she's free, and takes happiness for granted. But like so many women of the time Suzanne (Deneuve) is actually terribly oppressed; an item of decoration, a cleaner and looker-afterer. Potiche, directly translated, means 'trophy wife'. Ozon revels in playing with the iconography of his ex-Belle De Jour (Buñuel, 1967), and in doing so he's delivered his best film since 5x2 (2004)...

Yet the Ozon film Potiche most recalls is 2002's 8 Women, with its striking Technicolour palette and adaptation from the stage (8 Women from Robert Thomas, Potiche from Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy). But there are significant differences too. 8 Women was, like a play, confined to a singular location, and was a story about women in trouble; women facing the charge of murder, and seeking innocence via song. It's an uplifting work, harking back to a classical age of filmmaking, but it has darker undertones and the women's trapped nature is telling. That opening scene in Potiche does more than unravel Deneuve's iconography then; it also unshackles the story from its theatrical roots, placing us in an exterior impossible to the stage, and tells us that this is a story about empowerment. Suzanne may be relegated to the mantelpiece once she gets home to her histrionic husband (Fabrice Luchini), but on her own terms she has strength. It's a story of liberation more than anything, and that's a message we can get behind.

It's also a message handled with maturity and emotional dexterity, and one which never comes off like a lecture, yet it's only the surface of Ozon's latest. This is a picture of resplendency, joie di vivre and dry wit which allows tone to inform content; the upbeat nature of the film reflecting Suzanne's ascent through her husband's business, after he is committed to hospital following a union strike in which he was taken hostage. Oh, by the way, the business is an umbrella factory, which in several scenes recalls a Deneuve-starring Jacques Demy classic from 1964.

Really, underneath the exuberant decor, humour and breezy pace (the film even ends in song) Potiche is a lament for aging, and the most important relationships in the film are between Suzanne and her distanced children, Joëlle (Judith Godrèche) and Laurent (a delightfully camp Jérémie Renier), who arrive home from their busy lives (failing marriages and flings with bakery girls) to assist their mother in business. Suzanne wishes to keep her children near in what she feels is her proudest time. There's a moment near the beginning of the film where Joëlle tells her mother of never wanting to be like her, and asks if she's really happy. Suzanne replies yes, but really she is stifled beyond self-recognition, unaware of the point she has got to without any achievements to call her own. Throughout the course of Potiche, especially in her brief encounter with ex-flame Maurice (Gérard Depardieu), who recalls to her memory a more sexually promiscuous past, Suzanne comes to realise and accept her age, her place and why she has to change things. Yet her ultimate fate is anything but mournful for age; in the spirit of what has come before, she embraces her biggest challenge yet, and shows no signs of stopping...

Potiche was released into UK cinemas on June 17th. This review was originally posted on Essential Writers, but due to an unfortunate maintenance failure on that site I have now reassigned the review to E-Film Blog.

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