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'Potiche': The French know their farces

Suzanne (Catherine Deneuve), right, is troubled to be called a trophy wife by her daughter Joëlle (Judith Godrèche). Potiche is in French with subtitles.
Suzanne (Catherine Deneuve), right, is troubled to be called a trophy wife by her daughter Joëlle (Judith Godrèche). Potiche is in French with subtitles.

Pairing Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu pays dividends in the daft, feather-light French farce Potiche, a period piece designed to remind us of just how far and how fast women have come in the Western world.

Deneuve, a well-preserved 67, is Suzanne. She is the potiche, or "trophy wife," of Robert (Fabrice Luchini of Moliere, Intimate Strangers and The Girl From Monaco), the fellow who married her and took over Suzanne's family's umbrella factory.

Robert is virulently anti-union, given to rants and fistfights at the hint of a strike. And this being 1977, unions in France aren't taking that lying down. When a strike is called, Robert is taken hostage. The best efforts of the Marxist mayor (Gerard Depardieu) buy him only a reprieve. Suzanne must take over her daddy's factory while her husband recovers from the trauma of his hours as a hostage.

And as she does, the mayor talks of reviving their long-ago dalliance.

Suzanne's children take sides in the family struggle for control of the umbrella works, and Robert's infidelities come home to roost before all is said and done.

Best of all, we see the rising expectations and ambitions of Suzanne's son and especially her daughter, Joëlle (Judith Godrèche), inspired by her mother's example. Mom's not just a potiche any more. Why should Joëlle be?

The performances are pitched just right, with Deneuve and Depardieu clicking just as one would hope, and Luchini making a perfect sexist fat-cat lout.

Director François Ozon isn't the deftest hand at doling out little plot surprises in Potiche. He did 8 Women, a musical, so this has musical elements as it wears out its welcome after the 90-minute mark. The film finishes rather meekly, which undercuts some of the satire's fun.

But it's funny to hear Depardieu lament, "I betrayed my class," and Deneuve top that with "I betrayed my husband" as Suzanne works out disagreements and leads French women out of the kitchen and into the boardroom and halls of government.

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