A stubbornly minor diversion from writer-director Francois Ozon—who seemed headed for great things a decade or so ago but has been floundering with similar trifles ever since—Potiche (the title translates as French slang for “trophy wife”) seems conceived mainly as a love letter to his iconic leading lady, Catherine Deneuve.
Based on a musty 1980 stage play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, the film stars Deneuve as a desperate housewife attempting to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle, even if that means turning a blind eye to her umbrella-tycoon husband’s incessant philandering. She’s got no illusions about what she married into, so why not just dote on the grandkids, enjoy a jog through the woods and giggle over the sight of two rabbits humping?
But everything changes when hubby (weaselly Fabrici Luchini) is taken hostage by striking workers, the lot of them fed up that—amongst other offenses—he’s never upgraded the bathrooms at the factory. Deneuve’s Suzanne steps in as CEO to handle the union negotiations, and as it turns out the old gal’s got a knack for business after all.
Ozon eats up the 1977 setting, wallowing in the gauzy colors and tacky fashions, without ever quite committing to the strident women’s lib speeches in the original script. He seems more interested in figuring out how many Umbrellas Of Cherbourg references he can fit into a single picture, and indulging Deneuve’s seldom-utilized crack comic timing. (She hasn’t been allowed to be this funny since Ozon’s giddy 2002 musical, 8 Women.)
Potiche dithers here and yon, with a deliberately dated tinny score and retro camera movements that annoy just as often as they delight. But the best sequences involve Suzanne’s troubled history with a local labor activist, played by Gerard Depardieu. Now disturbingly larger than a mid-sized SUV, he’s still got a gruff charisma, and it’s a treat to watch these two titans of French cinema playing off one another, dropping hints about their storied pasts.
Eventually they get down and boogie on a lighted disco dance floor, which might be reason enough for this picture to exist.