François Ozon may be France’s answer to our Coen brothers or even Stanley Kubrick, in that with each film he makes, the writer/director plays in a different genre sandbox. With 2003’s “Swimming Pool,” it was an erotic thriller; 2009’s “Ricky,” a family fantasy. Now, with “Potiche,” it’s a political comedy.
No matter the flavor, Ozon’s works have one thing in common: They never fully follow through on their immense, initial promise.
“Potiche” plays Friday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
The title translates to English as “trophy wife,” the ostensible label affixed to Suzanne (Catherine Deneuve, “A Christmas Tale”), devoted housewife to the wealthy, but greedy businessman Robert Pujol — the last name rhymes with “asshole,” as is noted during a protest. Played by Fabrice Luchini (“The Girl from Monaco”), he’s more interested than carrying on affairs than overseeing matters at his umbrella factory.
On Suzanne’s birthday, Robert’s beset with ticker troubles and taken hostage by striking union employees tired of his Draconian methods, and demanding better working conditions and overtime pay. With the rest of the family holed up in their cozy, extravagant home, smoking and drinking and cracking jokes, “Potiche” carries the air of a play — in particular, a farce.
Enlisting the help of a one-time fling in MP Mayor Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu, “Inspector Bellamy”) to free her spouse, Suzanne realizes perhaps she should run the factory instead. And, with an hour left in the film, an actual plot takes hold, and Ozon veers the ship from overtly screwball comedy to a tale of period-piece empowerment.
In her new role as de facto CEO, Suzanne excels. While somewhat naive, she uses her heart to guide managerial matters. The still-beautiful Deneuve, not 100-percent convincing as clueless, excels in a position of power. Less effective is Suzanne’s “will they or won’t they” flirtation with Babin, but if you’ve ever wanted to see two giants of world cinema disco dancing, “Potiche” is your chance.
The film pairs the two stars for the eighth time, which results in effortless performances between them, yet Depardieu’s legendary excess has caught up to him to a point where it visually distracts from his acting. The man appears teetering on a heart attack himself.
Ozon’s re-creation of 1977 France is a colorful one, even when his script turns increasingly dour as it asks big questions about the politics of business, of sexes, of love … without giving any answers of substance. “Potiche” is like that pastry in the bakery counter: It sure looks good, and you may not need it, but you bite anyway, and your desire for it turns out to be more pleasurable than the actual taste.