Potiche means trophy wife. Deneuve is Suzanne, married to the insensitive, stupidly tyrannical, wealthy boss of an umbrella factory – a knowing nod, surely, to her role in Demy’s 1963 Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. At first she is submissive and put upon by her husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini), turning a blind eye to his infidelities with his secretary. Her conservative daughter (Judith Godrèche with authentic Farrah Fawcett flicks) only sees her as a housewife and mother: her (unacknowledged) gay son (Jérémie Renier) is more perceptive.
When the workers strike and take her husband hostage, the impasse is left to her to resolve. She does so by calling on the help of the communist mayor, Babin (Gerard Depardieu), her secret ex-lover of many years ago, a rugged man mountain with a vulnerable side. With his encouragement, and to her family’s amazement, she takes over the running of the family factory while her husband recovers from a stress-induced heart attack.
Swapping her deliciously pistachio-coloured domestic soft furnishings for the managing director’s desk, she brings her caring approach to industrial relations. As a result, business booms and she is transformed into a new woman – reflected in her more sophisticated Thatcheresque hairstyles and chic-er dress sense. Sexual chemistry threatens to revive between the former lovers. Suzanne prevails on Babin to take her to the club her husband frequented: the image of Deneuve and Depardieu disco dancing in stately Saturday Night Fever mode will stay with me for a long time.
Her husband’s secretary (Karine Viard) is also liberated by the new regime. Then, in darkly comic convolutions, long-hidden family secrets emerge. Though Suzanne has turned the tables on her husband and taken charge of the factory – and her life – she is maliciously ousted by him when he recovers, but with her new-found confidence, runs for election to public office – “If I can run a factory, I can run France!” she declares gamely.
There’s much that is serious beneath the frothy French farce – women’s rights at work and at home, abortion, the right to sexual freedom, incest… Deneuve is magnificent, from our first sight of her, regal in jogging suit and curlers to the magic, surreal postscript of her singing the song that closes her political rally. Depardieu is always an interesting actor. The two greats together, in their maturity, are effortlessly watchable and the film is hugely enjoyable. But despite Ozon’s assertion of its relevance, I’m still not sure whether this very funny film is a biting satire of contemporary discrimination against women or a pastiche of seventies sexual attitudes. Then again, it could be both.