Potiche means "trophy wife," and that's exactly what screen legend Catherine Deneuve is at the start of the latest movie by French director François Ozon, the man behind such fanciful films as Swimming Pool and 8 Women. Ozon, Deneuve, and Gérard Depardieu play to and against their types in this slight, frothy, and occasionally amusing story of a woman who takes over her husband's gloomy business after he lands in the hospital and — surprise! — turns it into a moneymaking venture.
Set in 1977, the movie centers on bored housewife Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve) as she keeps things in order for her philandering husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who took over an umbrella factory started by Suzanne's father. (The umbrellas are a nice little nod to Deneuve, whose breakthrough role was in 1964's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, one of the most colorful movies to ever come out of France.)
Robert is the kind of guy who tells his wife, "You're here to share my opinion, not waste my time" when she disagrees with him. They've been married 30 years, and by this point the romantic Suzanne merely tolerates her insufferable husband. No surprise then that he treats his workers like shit too. One night, the overworked, underpaid employees take Robert hostage and demand very little — a new toilet is at the top of their list. But the stubborn Robert refuses to "give an inch."
So Suzanne visits former union leader Maurice Babin (Depardieu), with whom she had a brief fling years ago, to help free her husband. Robert is released but is rushed to the hospital the next morning after an anxiety attack. So Suzanne takes over both negotiations and the factory, and for the first time in her life she's more than just a trophy wife.
Ozon's playful style and Potiche's candy-colored imagery often recall the nimble comedies from the 1970s that were still reeling from the previous decade's cultural revolution. Ozon can be a subtle filmmaker, but he lays on the nostalgic pastiche kinda thick here, with pantsuits, discos, big cans of hairspray, and ever-present cigarettes. There's even a spit take.
The movie's main themes — women's rights, the bourgeoisie vs. the working class, doing what you love instead of doing something for money — come off as too quaint at times. Of course, it all falls under Ozon's '70s spell, but that doesn't freshen up the somewhat stale subjects much. It's better to just watch these old pros (Deneuve is 67, Depardieu is 62) have some fun with the light script (which Ozon adapted from a play) and an old-fashioned idealism that went out of style with movies like this.