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Potiche

Potiche posterSynopsis

Set in 1977 in France, directed by Francoise Ozon.  It’s about the owner of an umbrella factory, Fabrice Luchini playing Robert Pujoi.  His wife is the potiche of the title, a trophy wife played by Catherine Demeuve as Suzanne Pujoi.  They have an idealistic student son played by Jeremie Renier and a daughter played by Judith Godreche.  Robert Pujoi is a tyrannical boss, when he falls ill it gives a chance for the rest of the family to run the factory.  Suzanne contacts an old flame Babin (played by Gerard Depardieu) because there is a strike at the umbrella factory.  Babin is the communist trade union boss and Suzanne feels she can do business with him.  She turns out to be quite successful and Robert Pujoi must fight to get back his ownership of the factory (with the help of daughter and shareholders).  Suzanne then competes with Babin to be mayor of this town in northern France, she wins, and it’s a victory for women.  The trophy wife had had a few lovers and was quite freewheeling and her husband did not know about this.

Criticism

This is of course another chance to tour the 1970s and its retro wallpaper, bad hair and tight clothes.  It seems like a sort of French answer to Made in Dagenham, yet another chance to show an era that’s recently gone, but is in some ways pretty remote.  Like the English film, it’s about characters dealing with an industrial dispute, though it’s more lighthearted than Dagenham.  It does remind you though that in the supposedly liberated era of the late 20th century, French women had, and have, some battles to fight.  Witness the shinanigans in the French government and the sexism that’s still rampant.  Deneuve herself plays a bored wife (we’ve had a great many since Madame Bovary), who realizes ker own talent in the boardroom.  She takes on the primitive sexism of her husband, and then the sentimental self pitying sexism of Banin who once had an affair with her, he thinks her son is his, then is told he might not be.  The movie seems to be saying that, whatever the political posturing of the men, they are all sexist and Suzanne has got the measure of them.  When Babin gets jealous, Suzanne puts him in his place by telling him that he has had his share and should be grateful for that.  Strong independent women existed before Carla Bruni, Sarkozy is only the latest in a world of comical husbands.  Robert Pujoi is a cross between Basil Fawlty and Sarkozy.  He throws tantrums when he’s been crossed and when Suzanne asks for a divorce he becomes a self pitying wreck.  He has been cuckolded by Suzanne and is no match for her self belief.

Suzanne takes on Babin and beats him in the election and this could be the start of a new era of feminist self assertion.  The umbrella factory is a reference to the musical of 1964 called Les Parapluies de Cherbourg which starred Deneuve.  The musical was all singing and no speech, Deneuve revives the spirit of that musical in her election victory.

The politics of workers’ strikes was to come to an end by the 80s.  Margaret Thatcher triumphed over Scargill and the miners.  The limitations of labourism are as obvious here as in Made in Dagenham.  Trade union disputes wanted better treatment and better pay from capitalists, that should not be confused with socialism.  When capitalism changed in the 80s, labourism went into decline.  This movie sharply observes the era of the 70s:  the male trade union negotiators in their leather jackets and walrus moustaches.  Where were the women?  The communist mayor became a familiar and avuncular part of French provincial  life and there was nothing threatening about it, indeed it became quite homely

The light hearted soap opera feel about this film recalls the Brian Rix farces in the theatre ( this actor was famous for losing his trousers in the comedies he acted in).  The details of 70s domestic life also reminded me of Mike Leigh’s Abigails’ Party a play about the horrors of the new affluent vulgarity.  Deneuve lives in a horrifyingly well ordered and affluent house.  The son goes through the routines of idealistic rebellion and later you think he’s a bit camp and maybe he’s got a gay friend, but the film draws back from this.  The daughter is an Abba clone who is status seeking.  The household also reminds me of Fawlty Towers, the male boss is a figure of fun and the women are the real brains.

This is a witty and enjoyable film and its’ characters are just about savvy enough to avoid being completely embarrassing.  Naturally, the silly husband treats his secretary as his plaything and she gets feminist revenge on him.  The one curious lack in this is that all the people are Caucasian, there are no Algerians, Vietnamese, or black Africans.

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Archipelago

Archipelago posterSynopsis

About an upper middle class family getting together on holiday in their nice cottage in Tresco in the Scilly Isles.  Kate Fahy plays Patricia, the mother, Tom Huddleston plays Ed, and his sister Cynthia is played by Lydia Leonard.  They have ‘domestic help’ who is Rose, played by Amy Lloyd, and she comes from Northamptonshire.  There is also an artist played by Christopher Baker who teaches the family how to paint in water colours and he also gives words of wisdom when needed.  Patricia talks to her husband on the phone and gets quite angry with him.  They all have fraught domestic scenes, they discuss their lives, they go on picnics, they flounce off in tantrums.  Ed wants to work as a volunteer in Africa but he’s not sure.  Cynthia berates him about befriending Rose and about his seeming recklessness.  Rose gets fed up with their scenes and leaves.  The painter leaves and later they all leave.

Review

This was made by Joanne Hogg who made Unrelated in 2007 set in Tuscany.  These are horrid, snobby, self absorbed, neurotic people.  Their so-called leisure is laboriously difficult.  It gave me a headache  just waiting for the next argument.  These people don’t like themselves much and you want to tell them to relax.  They are supposed to be on holiday in their ‘Sunday Times’ supplement cottage but it’s all hard work.  This mournful self absorption is backdropped by the semi-tropical flora of the Scilly Isles  The tone is dark, sweaty, and close.  We stare at interiors like we’re looking at paintings.  Still it’s what’s not on the screen, as much as what is, that’s equally fascinating.  Ed’s girlfriend Chloe is not there and he obviously misses her.  The father is only on the phone, looking at this lot you can’t blame him for not being there.  Patricia spits venom at him and gets quite nasty.  This is not so much a holiday as a well furnished prison built on repression in unacknowledged emotions.  The tantrums simply serve to distance people further from each other rather than bring people together.  There is an aftermath of sulking that is won round by humouring.

Cynthia is bitchier than her mother.  When Ed wants to help the ‘domestic help’ Rose, Cynthia drags out all the old arguments justifying caste snobbery:  “It’s her job so she would be embarrassed by help”.  This is oblivious to the fact that though people might need the money to serve other people, justifying this is hardly a sign of human solidarity. For all its economic rationale, employing what in effect are domestic servants, represents a cultural failing.  Cynthia projects her own self serving need to benefit from the proprieties with what other people may or may not want, and they are not asked about it. Cynthia is the same old champion of caste alienation we hear in such arguments.  As it happens, Rose seems to take an uninvolved and unembarrassed attitude to her chores, they are simply a job.  Her conversations with her employers are a bit self conscious and stilted but this arises from no feelings of social subordination, rather from unease with these uptight people themselves.  Rose does the plucking of a pheasant or the buying of a lobster with an air of curiosity.  She tells the vegetarian Ed about supposedly humane ways of cooking lobsters and if it goes wrong, how the creatures thrash about.  This background of harsh nature serves as a sort of symbolic correlation of the raw emotions that these characters have to suppress.  The masks are tight and strained but only slip when a little weakness shows, like when Ed seeks some advice from the surrogate father who is the visiting water colour painter.  Ed is full of politically correct sensitivity and gets hotly defensive at Cynthia’s attacks on the C.V. advisability of the African stint, she derides it as ‘gap year’ stuff.

The painter is wet and self obsessed and takes failure as spiritually nourishing sufferings he can pour into his water colours.  He finds himself becoming a sort of family guru as the family itself seems to seek solace in getting the tones of the sea and sky.

There’s another scene showing this family’s neuroses.  They all argue over the best table in a restaurant, wondering whether the view or the light should make a difference.  When they finally choose a table, Cynthia rejects the food as underdone and she demands that it be re-cooked.  The others don’t agree and Cynthia is angry by their failure to endorse her judgement.  The chef arrives and is dutifully acquiescent in rectifying the cause of the complaint.  This reminds me of that Monty Python sketch in which Graham Chapman’s complaint about a dirty knife leads to a psychotic episode for the chef John Cleese.

The film lasers in on the neuroses of pampered people and their hair-trigger propensity to go crazy at seeming trivialities.  For me, this film is one of the most involving insights into the lives of the rich.

Seen at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff.

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