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.
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.