A screwball satire set in 1970s France has contemporary resonances and plenty of laughs
Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1. Carlos the Jackal. The Baader Meinhof Complex. For the past few years film-makers have tapped into the social and economic uncertainty sweeping across Europe by revisiting the inglorious 1970s, a decade that is often held up as a mirror to society’s current malaise.
Directors and producers have repackaged the era, putting a glossy and seductive spin on an age that was, quite unglamorously, characterised by industrial strikes, mass unemployment and terrorism.
François Ozon’s latest film Potiche plays with convention by eschewing the unsmiling style of classics in his own roster, such as Swimming Pool (2003). One would assume that this considered and
unsettling style would be perfect for a film set in post-industrial 1970s France, but Ozon has raised the kitsch stakes in his retelling of Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédys’ eponymous play, which is set in Sainte-Gudule.
It was Ozon’s original intention to use the basis of the play to write a film about President Nicolas Sarkozy in the spirit of Stephen Frears’ The Queen (2006). What we have is a somewhat different film that depicts how a matriarch evolves. The 1970s setting is maintained in order to keep distance from the characters, and also to allow for a more realistic depiction of the class divisions among the French.
The year is 1977 and Catherine Deneuve, who is becoming perilously like Hilary Clinton in appearance, plays Suzanne Pujol, the seemingly placid and reserved wife of Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini). Luchini’s Pujol is a highly-strung umbrella magnate with philandering ways.
His angry worker's demands for fair pay and longer holidays are anathema to his capitalist ideologies. Monsieur Pujol’s daughter Joëlle is very much suspicious of the workers and is thus a close ally of her father. The son, Laurent, on the other hand, has spent time in Paris and can sense the revolutionary aroma in the air.
Deneuve’s character at first appears to be every bit the trophy wife (the ‘potiche’ of the title) that she is expected to be, running through the nearby forest in an iconic three-stripe Adidas tracksuit and writing whimsical poems about the nature that she sees.
When her husband attacks an employee in the umbrella factory and is taken hostage by the striking workers, Madame Pujol is forced to approach former lover and Communist mayor Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu).
Babin helps free Monsieur Pujol, but this left-right transgression inadvertently sets a chain of events in motion which sees Babin’s politically hard exterior melt away as the film becomes a warm, funny and often farcical depiction of love and female emancipation.
Potiche will not be to everybody’s fancy, as the tweeness can grate. But, as an alternative approach to satire, it is a triumph that provides genuine ‘laugh-out-loud’ moments only a screwball French comedy can concoct.
Potiche runs in Queen's Film Theatre from June 27 to July 7.