Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

03 July 2011

My Own Private Ozon-Fest

In the middle of a hot and humid Saturday afternoon, I slipped into the Gene Siskel Film Center to watch Francois Ozon’s Potiche, starring the eternally luminous Catherine Deneuve and France’s answer to the teddy bear, Gérard Depardieu. I think there is a local ordinance against going to the movies on a sunny Saturday afternoon in July when you are supposed to be either relaxing at the beach or eating an enormous turkey leg with your bare hands at the Taste of Chicago. But I’ve never been one to play by the rules, and this in particular is one that I take great pleasure in breaking whenever the opportunity presents itself. Watching Potiche was like sitting in a dainty but ornate wire café chair, snacking on meringues and champagne. This is a movie that tickled my nose and made me giggle with its silly send-ups of French sexism circa 1977 (hmmmmm…) and clever allusions to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg 1964), the film that originally brought a 20-year old Deneuve international attention.

Catherine Deneuve in Potiche

The word “potiche” loosely translates as “trophy wife” and that is what Deneuve’s Suzanne Pujol has been for over thirty years, the charming but inconsequential wife of a mean-spirited umbrella tycoon (Fabrice Luchini), who has taken over control of the company started by his wife’s father. In the opening scene, we see Suzanne in a most un-Deneuvian red jogging suit, pausing to scribble a few lines of verse about a squirrel that she encounters on her morning run.  She is a sweet, silly, and unnecessary woman, whose children are grown and whose husband Robert chastises her if she doesn’t leave every bit of the cooking and housework to the servants. The husband, meanwhile, is getting his jollies elsewhere (including a strip club called Badaboum, which sounds much funnier when Deneuve says it than when Tony Soprano says it in New Jersey-inflected English).  But then the workers at the umbrella factory go on strike, Robert has a heart attack, and Suzanne steps in and takes control with the help of her husband’s archenemy, Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu), a Communist Party deputy mayor and—as we learn—Suzanne’s former lover.  As the plot unfolds, Suzanne emerges as a force of nature in pearls, a woman with a few secrets and a few tricks up her sleeve, who achieves power and success without ever losing her composure or coiffeur.

Coincidentally, I watched Ricky (2009) at home on Friday night, making Potiche my second film directed by François Ozon in twenty-four hours.  Ricky is a perversely funny movie featuring a rather un-cherubic flying baby. I’m still puzzled by some elements of it, in particular how the very grim opening scene (in which the mother tries to put her child in foster care) relates to the rest of the film. I’m also ashamed of myself for laughing so hard when baby Ricky manages to escape from a shopping cart while in a supermarket with his mother and proceeds to crash into everything in the store like a rabid bat. I thought it was really funny. I’m sorry.

Potiche is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago until Thursday, 7 July.

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