French director Francois Ozon delivers a mainstream trifle

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4 Stars

Francois Ozon, the French helmer of such adventurous dramas as 5x2 and Swimming Pool, is usually a pretty serious guy. But, despite a potentially probing premise, his latest film proves that he can direct enjoyable trifles with the best of them. Potiche is reminiscent thematically - and only thematically - of the recent Made in Dagenham, another historical look at the nexus of women's rights and labor rights. But unlike the preachy, humorless Dagenham, Potiche is as light and refreshing as a pinafore.

Joyously colorful, like the loudest Pedro Almodóvar films, Potiche is a loopy and self-conscious comedy that takes its sober thematic grounding and sends it soaring into a deliberately artificial cinematic landscape full of unusual editing transitions, a cartoony score and hilariously stilted flashbacks. (It's hard to take this lush fantasy too seriously when one of the first shots in the film is of 
fornicating squirrels.)

Loosely adapted from a 1980s French play and staged largely in and around an umbrella factory full of disgruntled workers, Potiche looks at feminism and worker's rights in an era that saw little of either. Fabrice Luchini plays Robert Pujol, the buffoonish, adulterous, anti-union proprietor of the factory who is all but overthrown by his deceptively airy "trophy wife," Suzanne (Catherine Deneuve). She gains a majority stake in the company and proceeds to properly compensate its workers and modernize its stock, with some help from her best frenemy: Gérard Depardieu, an Old Guard, left-wing politician who's as big as Michael Moore. (In more ways than one: You need an awfully wide screen to frame Depardieu's increasingly morbid girth.) Depardieu's Maurice Babin had a fling with Suzanne in another life, and he's since played the jilted lover as convincingly as the jaded leftist. When it's revealed that Maurice may in fact be the father of Suzanne's liberal son Laurent (Jérémie Renier), it creates more comic schisms in a family already 
divided by politics.

This film has received some of Ozon's best theatrical distribution of late; it's practically a wide release compared to his most recent features, Ricky and Hideaway, two tonally polarized takes on pregnancy and its aftershocks. It's easy to see why: It's a charming audience movie, not very demanding on those with subtitle phobia and equally rewarding for mass audiences and urbane cinephiles alike. Deneuve and Depardieu, the last lions of the '70s French cinema mainstream, aren't getting any younger, but they have a lot of fun satirizing politics, history and themselves under Ozon's sardonic camera.

More by John Thomason


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