Have you ever wondered whatever happened to those old-style Hollywood films? You know, the ones where everybody remains clothed, everyone routinely smokes, and maintaining viewer interest depends on dialogue and plot twist and character development, and it all feels a little like the filming of a stage play? Well, they’re still making them like that in France . As an American, you’ll just have to put up with the subtitles.
“Potiche” is supposed to be a 70’s homage, which gives them the excuse to dress the characters in period costumes, but it really feels more 50’s. Catherine Deneuve plays Suzanne Pujol, a perfectly superficial 60-something housewife whose children are grown and gone, and whose overbearing husband has long since sought the companionship of younger, more eager women. She has turned a blind eye for so long that she lives in a little dream world, where she’s surrounded by her beautiful furniture and her lovely garden, and enjoys her adult children visiting her regularly, all the while pretending that her marriage is still vibrant and viable.
Her husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini) is not only a cad, he’s imperious and arrogant and an unrelenting bore. He’s the boss of the umbrella factory which his wife’s late father founded and bequeathed to him, so no one can touch him. Or so he thinks.
The workers, now organizing into a feisty union (dirty little Communists, Robert calls them), are demanding concessions from the owner, but Robert will have none of it. The union ringleader, Maurice Babin (an astonishingly corpulent Gerard Depardieu), is calling for a strike, and when Robert suddenly falls ill (presumably from the stress, but maybe just to escape having to deal with it all), it’s Suzanne who winds up doing the hard negotiating.
We all know what’s going to happen next. Suzanne turns out to be not only competent in the difficult negotiations, but savvy in marketing and product development. She enlists the aid of her grown children, who are happy to have something useful to do, and just when everyone is marveling at how well things are going, Robert roars back from his sickbed ready to resume the reins, but finds that his sweet wife is more formidable than he ever suspected.
This film feels very French, in its assumption that old married couples will have enjoyed several affairs when younger. And it doesn’t matter now, as long as things were discreet then. And, now that they’re no longer youthful and charming, they’re past even thinking about risqué dalliances and amorous forays.
There’s no violence. No car chase scenes. No explosions. No weapons being brandished about, and no inkling of fantasy, supernatural, sci-fi, horror, or superheroes. Just earthbound folks being their true human selves. It’s beyond old-fashioned and approaching quaint. But if you’re one of those genteel moviegoers who yearns for the feel of Hollywood films from an earlier era, and you’re just adventurous enough to try a foreign film, here’s your unique opportunity.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas