The films by the unpredictable French director Francois Ozon range from frothy camp (8 Women) to straightforward drama (A Time to Leave, Under the Sand) to nightmarish horror (Criminal Lovers). His latest film, Potiche, qualifies as screwball comedy edging toward farce, although its political subtext has satirical weight (much of it inevitably lost on U.S. audiences) and its humor is laced with droll absurdity.
The opening credits alone seem to promise vintage John Waters: Wearing a red track suit and sporting curlers, Catherine Deneuve jogs through the forest and stops to stretch while she coos over an adorable deer, then a beautiful dove — and is then taken aback by the sight of two rabbits humping.
That opening gag gets a big laugh, but it doesn’t really set the tone for the movie to follow, which is less infantile and more sophisticated. The title is French for “trophy wife,” which is exactly what Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve) has allowed herself to become. The setting is 1977, and the feminist movement is spreading across the globe, but Suzanne still abides her boorish, adulterous husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who has built a fortune running an umbrella factory she inherited from her father. Their daughter Joelle (Judith Godreche) criticizes Suzanne for being too lenient and accepting (“The last thing I want is to end up like you,” Joelle tells her). Their son Laurent (Jeremie Renier) is too wrapped up with college and his girlfriend to take notice of his parents’ increasingly brittle marriage.
But after Robert tests Suzanne’s patience one time too many, the docile housewife rebels in a big way — and discovers she quite likes her newly empowered self. Ozon adapted Potiche from the 1980 stage play by the comedy writing team of Barillet and Gredy (Cactus Flower), but he has refashioned the material primarily as a star vehicle for Deneuve and co-star Gerard Depardieu, who plays the town’s communist mayor and Suzanne’s ex-flame. The two seem to enjoy working opposite each other as much as we enjoy watching them, and the film is at its best when they’re onscreen together (such as a scene in which they go out to a nightclub, and Ozon makes time to give them a dance number).
Ozon also one-ups the play by adding a third act that pushes Suzanne’s emancipation to new heights, allowing her to put all the manipulative men in her life in their place against an unlikely backdrop of labor strikes and social unrest. Potiche is filled with rat-a-tat dialogue and broadly humorous situations, but Ozon also employs subtle touches (watch how Suzanne’s wardrobe changes over the course of the film or the silent transformation her son Laurent undergoes at the edges of the frame). The film’s main draw, though, is old-fashioned star power — particularly that of the luminescent Deneuve, whose screen aura only burns brighter with every passing year.
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Karin Viard, Jeremie Renier, Judith Godreche.
Writer-director: Francois Ozon. Based on the play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy.
Producers: Eric and Nicolas Altmayer.
A Music Box Films release. Running time: 103 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, adult themes. Opens Friday April 1 in Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema, Sunset Place, South Beach, Intracoastal; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray.