Bonbon cinema it might be, but “Potiche,” written and directed by French shape-shifter Francois Ozon, triggers a smile as its heroine ascends from kitchen-appliance companion to CEO and beyond.
The director’s offbeat efficiency and his stars’ old-pro skills overcome the story’s dated feeling, making for a charming movie.
Ozon — whose filmography includes the domestic oddity “Sitcom,” the grief-themed “Under the Sand” and the musical whodunit “8 Women” — adapted Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy’s 1977-set boulevard comedy, giving it his own brand of stylized atmosphere.
Period-silly flashbacks and song-and-dance numbers pepper the farce. A new final act, inspired by recent events, caps things off.
Catherine Deneuve plays Suzanne, a potiche (trophy wife) in a French provincial town. Introduced in a satirical passage in which she sports a red jogging suit, curlers and a mood just a bit too chipper, Suzanne receives material comforts but little respect from despotic husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who runs the umbrella factory she inherited from her father. Her grown children (Judith Godreche, Jeremie Renier) also think her fluff-headed.
Suzanne’s transformation begins when striking employees take Robert hostage, prompting her to seek assistance from communist MP and old flame Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu). Suzanne proves an effective negotiator and, when subbing for her recuperating husband, a dynamic, well-liked CEO.
The scenario intensifies when Suzanne refuses to relinquish the job to Robert when he returns. Robert won’t let his trophy wife usurp him.
The Barillet-Gredy play is decades old and often feels that way. Ozon doesn’t convey social changes occurring for women in the workplace or capture the exhilaration and the backlash accompanying them.
Also underwhelming is his depiction of the class issues that have kept Suzanne and working-class Babin from achieving happiness. Ozon’s presentation of Suzanne’s bourgeois cluelessness features little more than a sight gag (Deneuve garbed in a frilly dress).
Still, Ozon has undeniably concocted an enjoyable 103 minutes of froth. He keeps the busy plot, which includes a thread involving infidelities, advancing engagingly. His nuttiness, while tonally challenging, prevents the filmed-play material from getting stuffy.
Best are the performances. Deneuve is a contagious blast in diva mode while also giving her character the underlying humanity.
Her scenes with frequent screen partner Depardieu (their star-crossed characters are referred to as the “bourgeois” and the “bumpkin”) sparkle.
Ozon honors the pair’s on-screen magic by avoiding phony romantic closure. Karin Viard, working near-miracles with the secretary-mistress role, stands out among the supporting cast.
Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Judith Godreche
Written and directed by Francois Ozon
Running time 1 hour 43 minutes