What can be a more triumphant way of making your point than giving your enemy a taste of their own medicine? Nothing matches the satisfaction of seeing Nick Cage or Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson parrot a bad guy’s catch phrase back to them after they’ve administered a violent revenge. They put on their most gravelly voice and say something like ‘time to go’, ‘watch your head’ or ‘access denied’. A world away from Nick Cage, Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve) is a poised, middle-aged housewife, or as the French say, a potiche, meaning ‘trophy wife’. She’s well dressed, cooks magnificently, writes nature poetry and lives in a state of tasteful leisure. She is, however, treated with total disregard by her husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who believes her to be helpless, uninteresting and without any personal ambitions. Needless to say, Suzanne, like Bruce Willis or Sly, gets to give back as good as she gets. The result is a boisterous comedy of role-reversals, secret keeping and marital spite that charms and amuses beautifully.
Robert Pujol is a wealthy man who has gathered around him a great many desirable people. He has two attractive and stylish children of leisure, both blonde and distinctly Brady-like, a glamorous and docile wife who wafts about writing haikus amongst the roses, a young, sexually willing secretary (Karin Viard) and a number of household servants. Pujol adores his position as breadwinner and lauds over all around him with aggressive disinterest in their opinions or desires. When a strike at the factory pushes Pujol’s health to breaking point, his wife Suzanne must elicit the friendship of “communist” blue-collar sympathiser Maurice Babin (guess who? Gerard Depardieu!), a former flame and Pujol’s arch-nemesis. With Babin’s help the strike ends and Suzanne’s life as a trophy wife ends with it, as she is liberated from the household to pursue her corporate abilities at the company, providing jobs for her children and addressing her romantically busy past. Most of the laughs come from Suzanne’s attempts to hide her various romantic encounters, gradually revealing the identity of her son, and also from the confusion of secretary Nadege as she befriends Suzanne whilst hiding her affair with Pujol. Suzanne’s metamorphosis turns the factory, her family and her love life upside-down as she usurps traditional gender roles.
Suzanne is something of a woman scorned but despite some feminist undertones, this comedy is more about role swapping and spite than it is about egalitarianism. Suzanne’s motherly enthusiasm and supremely coiffed appearance make her a formidable opponent in a male workplace. Her glamour evokes the determined goodwill Reese Witherspoon showed us in Legally Blonde. Suzanne succeeds because of her kind heart and ambition, wether she adopts masculine techniques or not. One considers that her desire to punish her husband by turning him into a trophy would not be out of place on Wisteria Lane. Her wardrobe is as spectacular as that of any Stepford wife, her personal style yo-yoing somewhere between Jackie Kennedy and Her Majesty the queen, giving her a fabulously regal air that amplifies her comedic revenges. Keep your eyes peeled for her husband’s hilarious cruise wear, also.
The fast-paced witty dialogue of Potiche takes a little bit of concentration, as the film’s English subtitles whiz by often without giving us time to look at the picture between readings. The drama itself is tightly composed, and the audience are kept in the loop of the to-ing and fro-ing of each of Suzanne’s relationships. Keeping up with the film as it breezes by is easy, though the hectic pace never lets up.
Visually, Potiche is a swirling kaleidoscope of seventies imagery: grids of brightly coloured squares, turtlenecks, choreographed disco dancing and orangey-brown wallpapers. Visual effects such as split screens, game-show like cut scenes and a beautifully slapstick soundtrack amp up a sense of period decadence and antiquated chic. Suzanne’s daughter resembles one of Charlie’s Angels and her son a camp, neckerchiefed Fred from Scooby Doo. In the opening scenes, Suzanne trots along an Arcadian country lane in full make-up, a huge hairdo and designer tracksuit. She gasps repeatedly at an abundance of woodland critters worthy of classic Disney and spontaneously writes a frivolous little poem about them. The whole sequence is as unrealistic as a magazine spread; yet through it we get a sense of the performative nature of being a potiche, having to embody an ideal even when nobody is watching. This idea is cleverly reversed when Suzanne breaks into the realm of public performance in the closing scene. Potiche is brought out of the realms of strict drama again and again by superimposed motifs that lighten the comedy out of the clutches of serious drama. Catherine Deneuve as Suzanne captures the cheery feel of this picture wonderfully and Luchini as the demoted Pujol demonstrates a classic fall from grace.