Potiche -- Film Review

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For an adaptation of a French boulevard comedy set in 1977, Francois Ozon's "Potiche" has plenty of contemporary sparkle and life, courtesy of a masterful central performance by grande dame Catherine Deneuve as an oppressed bourgeois housewife who finds liberation. Barillet & Gredy's well-written original play is not that new and this is not likely to be remembered as Ozon's greatest oeuvre, but he injects enough sly irony and verve to assure respectable box office returns in Europe. Deneuve's international following could push it toward the audience of "8 Women," another comedy she made with Ozon, and Gerard Depardieu's presence in the cast is another plus for art houses.

One of the rare comedies to make it into Venice competition, the film received a notably warm critical reception.

"Potiche," a title likely to be translated into national idioms, indicates a trophy wife or a woman content to live meekly in the shadow of her husband. That's Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve) as she jogs through the woods in a track suit and hair curlers, listening to the birdies and blowing kisses to the squirrels. Her husband (Fabrice Luchini) runs her late father's umbrella factory like a tyrant (the workers equate him to Hitler) and treats Suzanne like the proverbial doormat, but she tries to see the bright side of things.

When Pujol is taken hostage by the factory workers, Suzanne draws on a long-ago acquaintance, the Communist union leader Baban (Gerard Depardieu) who is now the town's mayor and a member of parliament, to get him freed. While her husband's away recovering from the ordeal, she steps in to run the factory with her son and daughter. Naturally things go extremely well -- until Pujol gets back.

Ozon and Deneuve are perfectly in step with keeping things light and fast-moving. Most of the laughs involve revelations about the prim and proper characters' sexual peccadillos, described in witty flashbacks. Not only does Mr. Pujol have a slew of ex-mistresses, including his perfect secretary Nadege (Karen Viard), but Suzanne has secrets of her own.

Though her transformation from mouse to lion is a foregone conclusion, Deneuve never loses the audience for a minute. Her change of clothes and hair-styles from scene to scene is a laugh in itself. What the audience cheers for, though, is her final, triumphant combo of professionality and ageless femininity. Not only does she get the best of all the men, whose pretentious sexism is mercilessly lampooned; she ends up as the happiest person in the picture.

In their seventh film together, Deneuve and Depardieu click with the naturalness of old friends. Judith Godreche and Jeremie Renier are amusingly cast as Suzanne's right-wing daughter and left-wing son.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: Mandarin Cinema, Foz, France 2 Cinema, Mars Films, Wild Bunch, Scope Pictures
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Karin Viard, Jeremie Renier, Judith Godreche
Director: Francois Ozon
Screenwriter: Francois Ozon
Based on a play by: Barillet & Gredy
Producers: Eric and Nicolas Altmayer
Director of photography: Yorick Le Saux
Production designer: Datia Wyszkop
Music: Philippe Rombi
Costumes: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Laure Gardette
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
103 minutes
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