It’s a strange sensation to find something you didn’t even know was lost. It’s rare, too, since I’m having trouble thinking of a reasonable analogy for that statement. Potiche qualifies. It’s a French farce about the bourgeoisie in 1977. It’s colorful, lively, hilarious and unexpected. Most unexpected of all was the realization that I can’t remember the last time we’ve had a proper farce in the cinema. John Landis’s Oscar comes to mind, and that was 20 years ago. That was a period piece too. I think the genre gave way to middle class amusements around the time that the bourgeoisie died out. Class distinctions are still present in our society but they’re not nearly as codified as they once were, so seeing rich people act like dopes is relatively meaningless because they no longer feel the need to act otherwise.
Potiche is a proper farce, and a great one. Catherine Deneuve stars as Suzanne Pujol, a trophy wife who seems quite happy with her station. She jogs, writes lousy poetry and fusses about her enormous house while her douchebag husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini) runs the affluent family business – they make umbrellas – and diddles his delightful secretary Nadège (Karin Viard). When the workers go on strike – how dare they! – they kidnap Robert, forcing Suzanne to take over the factory in his absence, and also later while he recovers from a heart attack caused by bourgeoisie-related shock. At first it seems that sweet, innocent Suzanne will be nothing more than a puppet for her friend and ex-lover Maurice (Gérard Depardieu, required by law to be in every French film), a socialist (!) politician, but Suzanne’s delightful demeanor and genuine affability make her an unexpected success. Everyone loves her, her lay-about kids are happily ensconced in the family business, and even Nadège discovers newfound power in a happy, matriarchal work environment.
It’s only when Robert recovers and schemes to reclaim his throne that the twists start turning fastly and furiously. In a time when every movie plot point can be predicted, or at least dismissed as inevitable after the fact, Potiche earns a special place in my heart for its genuinely unexpected developments. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out – So-and-So is obviously Blank’s illegitimate child, etc. – the witty script pulls the rug out from under you, burns the rug and gives you a good spanking just for being so damned gullible. And these aren’t the usual kinds of twists either, where you find out that What’s-His-Name was really a secret agent all along or that Who’s-Her-Face has been dead the whole time. These are the kinds of twists that don’t make you question the plot, but instead enrich the characters. These are complex individuals with fascinating secrets that, once revealed, move the plot forward instead of forcing it to fall back in on itself to provide further explanations.
At the center of this all is Suzanne, played so impeccably by Catherine Deneuve that shoving an Oscar in her hands right now doesn’t even seem premature. (Although I’d be surprised if she even gets a nomination. This is a comedy, after all.) Suzanne is a goldmine of feminine power: likable, sweet, funny, powerful, imaginative, resilient, sexy, and other adjectives as well. That she was unaware of her own positive qualities isn’t an issue. She doesn’t have time to get down on herself because she’s too busy doing. It’s refreshing to find a protagonist who doesn’t have the time to get introspective. Her actions fuel her character, and vice-versa. By the end of the film she’s accomplished more than the typical cast of an American comedy can muster in several sequels. While the American Pie kids were trying to figure out whether they wanted to have sex, Suzanne would have had sex, started a business, planted a garden, written a novel and saved the planet from Super Hitler. And she’d still have time for tea with an old friend because rescheduling would be rude. Protagonists don’t get much finer.
Potiche is highly recommended. It’s smart, crafty and – and this is the hard part to convey in a review – funny as hell. It’s always difficult to get that across, because the most obvious way to do it, explaining the joke, not only reduces the joke to a mere concept but also prevents readers, and later audience members, from discovering those hilarious little surprises for themselves. I urge you, passionately, to discover Potiche. It’s one of the best comedies in years.
Crave Online Rating: 9 out of 10