Friday, May 6, 2011

My (Admittedly Random) Thoughts on Potiche

Due to a mix-up in scheduling and a perhaps naïve assumption that films being screened for the San Francisco International Film Festival would be screened in San Francisco and not a completely different city such as, say, Berkeley, I could not see Hospitalite, a film about a Japanese slacker, his exhibitionist Brazilian wife and the high jinks that ensue when they impose on the hospitality of a Japanese family living in a tiny apartment. But I'm not bitter. Because had it not been for this serendipitous turn of events, I probably would have never seen Potiche.

According to Wikipedia, potiche is the French word for “decorative vase” but the word can also apparently be used to describe a trophy wife. In Potiche, the trophy wife in question is Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve). Suzanne leads the somewhat humdrum life of a housewife whose children have long since left the nest, all the while fulfilling her expected role of dutiful wife to philandering and avaricious Robert (Fabrice Luchini), supportive mother to son Laurent (Jeremie Renier) and doting grandmother to the children of daughter Joelle (Judith Godreche), the monotony of her day being broken only when she is occasionally inspired by fornicating rabbits or capering squirrels to write poetry in the little notebook she always seems to carry around with her. She may have lived out the rest of her days being happy, or at least content, with her lot in life except that the workers at the umbrella factory that her husband inherited from her father go on strike one day and when Robert's attempts to negotiate with the strikers break down (when he tries to punch one of them), he is taken hostage. Fortunately for Robert, Suzanne once had a fling with Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu), the left-wing politico who has been inciting the strikers, and after she pleads with him to intercede on Robert's behalf, the caustic industrialist is freed but is forced by his doctor to take a break from managing the umbrella factory, leaving Suzanne in charge.

You can probably guess what happens.

If you guessed that Suzanne turns things around at the factory, wins the trust of the workers (including Robert's secretary cum mistress), discovers that she has strengths beyond the domestic and poetic, and that her children, who she brought in to help her out during Robert's convalescence, also grow in the process (although Joelle's growth involves becoming a traitorous weasel), you would be correct. Somewhere during all this, she also reignites her relationship with Babin. Maybe reignite is a poor choice of words since their fling only involved one afternoon of torrid passion and could not really be labeled a relationship. Speaking of which, we, the viewers (and to his chagrin, Babin) eventually learn that her fling with Babin wasn't a one-time weakening of Suzanne's moral fiber but what seems to have been the manifestation of a habit fueled by the sort of randiness that would make a rabbit blush; it seems when she was newly married to Robert, there wasn't anyone of the male persuasion Suzanne wouldn't sleep with.

As you might have guessed, Potiche is a comedy and one I greatly enjoyed. However, it's difficult for me to determine whether my enjoyment stemmed from the story itself or the fact that it was set in 1977, a time when pants were tight and hair was big; half the laughs the film elicited from me were due to the ridiculousness of the clothes and the hair back then; admittedly, as I grew up during that era, my derision was mingled with more than a little nostalgia. There are moments in the film where the film-makers and actors give a nod to cinematic conventions from the 70's, from the melodramatic music playing in the background when a major discovery is made to the rather transparent expressions on the faces of the players involved in said discovery; I guess film-goers weren't very sophisticated back then and needed to be hit over the head in just this manner whenever something significant happened otherwise they wouldn't have realized that something important was transpiring before them. Part political satire, part homage, Potiche more than made up for the fact that I didn't get to see a hot naked Brazilian woman parading around on screen.

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