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Potiche (Blu-ray Review)

18 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 7/19/11
Music Box
Box Office $1.6 million
$29.95 DVD, $38.94 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for some sexuality.
In French with English subtitles.
Stars Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini.

Befitting a comedy that’s well out of its time in terms of no longer revelatory content, Francois Ozon’s pigment-happy filming of a Pierre Barillet/Jean-Pierre Grady feminist play is set in 1977, when there were still a handful of wheezy stand-up comics left poking fun at women’s liberation. Had this movie actually come out, say, 35 years ago, it might have been a mild sensation — in addition to the tolerable entertainment it still is today if you’re in a charitably susceptible mood.

But in 2011, frothy foreign-language fare no longer plays routinely (as it used to), even in major city markets. This is why Potiche (which translates roughly into the “trophy wife” Catherine Deneuve plays here) seems out of its time in another way — but one that makes it a not unwelcome novelty. In those same 1970s (assuming favorable reviews), reasonably smart fluff such as Potiche might have seen its way to a two-month solo run at one of the arthouses in, for instance, my Washington, D.C. stomping-ground — a city way up there in terms of the brain-trust moviegoer demographic. This may sound hard to believe, but a really first-rate French comedy such as Claude Sautet’s Cesar and Rosalie (with Yves Montand and Romy Schneider) enjoyed a six-month D.C. engagement, if memory serves.

In place of Montand and Schneider, we now have Gerard Depardieu and Deneuve, a satisfactory trade-off, to be sure. As a somewhat portly homemaking grandmother (where’ve you gone, Joe DiMaggio and Belle de Jour?), Deneuve is pressed into taking over her reactionary husband’s umbrella factory when he suffers a seizure battling protestors during a labor skirmish. Exuding charm at a workplace her late father actually founded, she ends up being successful — though not without controversy, even in her own home. Her ability to bend with the workforce engenders a few head-butts with a right-leaning bourgeois daughter (Judith Godreche) — and her tyrannical spouse (familiar French face Fabrice Luchini) can’t wait to return so he can dissemble all that she has accomplished.

Often in movies about mismatched couples, I find myself fantasizing to see an alternate narrative — one about long ago courtship days and how a seemingly cracked romantic union even came to be. Every literate moviegoer knows, for instance, what the young Deneuve looked like. And we can at least imagine or construct a presumed earlier version of Luchini — who is obviously not just hitting over his head looks-wise with France’s Goddess of Icy Love but playing a character who is consistently insufferable. So … how in the world?

To this end, we do see an atypically fun-loving Deneuve enjoying a little disco time in the company of her provincial town’s communist mayor (Depardieu) — one of several lovers she had during her childbearing years after discovering her husband’s serial philandering (he’s a real Dominique-Strauss Kahn). As an actor, Depardieu is now within reach of emeritus status — but again, audiences know what he used to look like. And if they don’t, the movie flashes us an old photo; can it really be more than 30 years since he starred with Deneuve in Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro?). So it probably matters less in our minds — at least as a comparison point to cranky Luchini — that he now looks like a guy who has a credit line at Orson Welles Menswear.

The result is so slight than I can understand why David Denby drubbed Potiche (which got generally decent or better reviews) so heavily in the New Yorker. Yet it’s smoothly performed with color schemes that are easy on the eye. The bright umbrella-factory setting harkens back to 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – which, along with the following year’s Repulsion (a combo that recalls what Goldwater supporters used to call “a choice, not an echo”), the film that put Deneuve on the international map. Some of the bantering with and by Luchini’s voluptuous mistress/secretary (Karin Viard) is fun as well — a performance with such an agreeable good-sport dimension that one momentarily forgets that she must be as much as an office distraction to straight males as Christina Hendricks’ character on “Mad Men.”

Also refreshingly off-handed in terms of sex is the flashback scene (shot in semi-long-shot with other actors standing in for the leads) where the younger but already married trophy wife makes impromptu love just off the road and in the woods with a blue-collar hunk that no one would ever peg as a future mayor. There’s nothing very dainty about it: Her fancy dress is pulled up, and her bare thigh is wrapped around her lover with intent. It’s a small point but does point up the differences between French movies and the Hollywood kind. No one would ever stage a scene like this in, say, a typically dippy Kate Hudson comedy. And if they did, it might give her filmography some zest.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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