Catherine Deneuve, a sixty-something French actress with tiny teeth and nice legs, has a surprising draw for me. And everyone else in the world, I know, I know. But really, actors or actresses really are rarely the reason I see a movie—I love Matt Damon, but if a trailer for one of his movies looks really stupid, I’m not going.
But it doesn’t seem to matter so much with Deneuve, maybe because she’s never in really stupid looking movies. I’ve seen the bawdy musical comedy, Eight Women, the family drama, A Christmas Tale and recently the Vietnam plantation movie, Indochine. I have a lot of work to do to see all of Deneuve’s movies—she’s made more than a hundred—but perhaps one of the appeals about Denueve is that at least now that she’s older, her name is still a box office draw, but the movies she’s in are not all about her. Unlike American actresses like Reese Witherspoon or even, to some extent, Meryl Streep, Deneuve’s movies are not vehicles propelled by her celebrity. The secondary characters are usually as important as her character. With Deneuve—granted I have a limited knowledge of all of her work—she works well in ensemble casts and truly becomes her characters.
The point of this post, finally, was really to talk about the movie I just saw, Potiche, or Trophy Wife. I saw Deneuve’s name under the masthead as I was driving through Wallingford in Seattle and that was really all it took, but the movie has been getting tons of good press, too, so it was truly irresistible.
Potiche tells the story of a trophy housewife, Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve), her husband an unreasonable, umbrella factory owner and an oppressive spouse (Fabrice Luchini) as they battle with gender politics and factory workers’ rights in the late 1970’s. Their two children, Joëlle (Judith Godréche) and Laurent (Jérémie Renie) follow a similar story arc to their mother—they go from being pawns stuck between their parents to struggling to discover their own autonomy. Gérard Depardieu (who I think has been in ever French movie I’ve ever seen) is the embodiment of the third major character—Mr. and Mrs. Dujol’s insatiable lust for extramarital affairs—as Mrs. Dujol’s jilted lover and the communist leader of the factory workers in the town.
The movie moves well from light-hearted fun to serious social comedy on women’s roles in the workplace to a history of French workers’ rights. The movie has a lot of fun ‘70’s style quirks—from the campy opening sequence of Deneuve in a red track suit jogging and smiling at woodland creatures, to a light, flute-and-horn-based score, to a split screen to illustrate two characters talking on the phone. It’s surprising, then, how seriously I took the central message—that Deneuve’s housewife character could take over the umbrella factory and run it well, despite her family's protests. Depardieu’s heartbreak, too, is suprisingly convincing amidst all the camp elements. I’ve rarely seen transitions from camp to seriousness work as well as it did in this movie.
The primary motivation of the film seems to be to illustrate how completely Suzanne leaves her life as a trophy wife. At the beginning she is uncomfortable watching two bunnies have sex and takes her husband’s advice that she is just a housewife. Still, as we learn of Suzanne’s extramarital affairs throughout her marriage, the audience, and her husband, come to know she was the epitome of the trophy wife that she seemed to be. As Suzanne begins to take more and more positions of power—and to put her husband in his place—the audience learns what a maternal and female style of doing business really looks like.
However, Suzanne's “matrilineal” system of business is skewered in the movie, too. Suzanne’s role model is her father, a paternalistic umbrella factory owner who gave his employees a signed picture of his face on their retirement. With Suzanne singing a goofy song after she is elected MP of the local communist chapter and her repeated pronouncement that all of her voters are “her children,” Potiche's end seems to say that yes, women can do just as good of job in business as men—but is a maternal way of doing business really any better? As Potiche tells us, maternal leadership is just as likely to use propaganda and false promises as its paternal counterpart.