So, a little lesson in French, mon amie: Potiche translates (more or less) as trophy wife in English. This should give you some insight into what the film will try to do from the opening montage of an upper class housewife running the French backwoods in a velvet jump suit. Surely there is more to life than just being a fabulously glamorous French woman without a care in the world except herself, her image, and her money? Surely there is.
Potiche is a prime example of the kind of fantasy comedy that Hollywood has forgotten how to make, but which are still regularly churned out by European and Latin cinema, as well as Bollywood (where they are almost a staple). The formula they follow is as such: take a hapless, downtrodden (but invariably good-hearted) hero/heroine, set them on a quest to rise above their designated life station, and then allow the so-called power brokers in their life (spouses, bosses, arch enemies, etc) to fall fecklessly (but always hilariously) in the wake of the hero’s/heroine’s newly discovered abilities. Potiche does all this to the T.
The story revolves around a very wealthy housewife known as Suzanne Pujol (the lovely Catherine Deneuve) whose discontent has reached a sort of resigned-ness that allows her to put up not only with an insolent, philandering brat of a husband, but also a sullen ingrate of a daughter and an impulsive son, all of whom want something from Suzanne but who never seem to give her back what she deserves – or needs. So when Mr. Pujol falls ill after being taken hostage by his striking employees at the umbrella factory that he owns (nee, inherited from his wife’s father), Suzanne is installed as his temporary replacement. Mr. Pujol expects her to be little more than a figurehead, but of course she turns out to be much, much more: she gets the factory back up and running, operating at a new level of profitability and worker productivity, and meeting the demands of the employees who would otherwise have her husband’s insolent, philandering soul in their angry clutches.
All of this occurs at the same time that Suzanne rediscovers her inner joie de vive after reconnecting with an old lover, Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu), a mayor and hero to the working class who has always opposed the inflexible power of the Pujols. He comes to think that he may in fact be the father of Suzanne’s son (who is much more like Babin than Pujol, in more ways than one) and this leads their relationship into hitherto unknown emotional territory. The viewer may begin to wonder, what is it that Babin really wants? And what is it that Suzanne can give him? Perhaps it’s time she began keeping for herself. The final chapter where Suzanne runs for the position of mayor opposite Babin winks knowingly at the progress that women have made since 1977 in all arenas of society, but it feels a tad inadequate given what Suzanne and the very real women like her have had to endure prior and hence. Oh, but wait: this is a comedy! Put your feminist pitchfork down…
The film ends well enough (though perhaps it runs a little longer than it should) and makes for a satisfying viewing experience, largely due to the pat perfect casting of Deneuve and Depardieu – and also to the fact that it allows the viewer to look back at all the progress that has been made by women of all nations in the last few decades. The film perhaps reads better as a retroactive gaze back at what might have been for all the women whose lives amounted to little more than unpaid servitude and a swirling mass of unrealized potential: think, for example, what it might have meant for Lucy Ricardo had she actually been able to go down to the club every night and put on a hilarious show while Ricky sat at home and waxed ineloquent with Fred Mertz (I mean this figuratively, of course, rather than literally, because then there would have been no show and no legacy!).
A prominent TV historian once put it best by saying about Lucy: Lucy was less a feminist than an example of why women needed feminists. Whatever reason you may be able to conjure – and despite the fact that the very term ‘feminist’ has adopted an almost militant connotation since its conception– we are glad to have had them.