François Ozon made his reputation in the late ’90s and early ’00s as one of the most gifted, eclectic, prolific stylists of his French filmmaking generation, but over the past few years, he’s seemed more interested in the “prolific” part of his rep. Potiche (loosely translated as “trophy”) returns Ozon to the colorful, energetic retro-homage of his musical 8 Women, and it’s his most purely enjoyable movie in nearly a decade. Set in 1977—which gives Ozon license to evoke the era through music, fashion, decor, and a kind of sitcom breeziness—Potiche stars Catherine Deneuve as the upbeat wife of uptight factory owner Fabrice Luchini. When Luchini has a heart attack during a labor dispute, Deneuve takes over and improves the workers’ lot and sales of the company’s umbrellas, all while renewing an acquaintance with an old lover, the town’s leftist deputy mayor, Gérard Depardieu.
Funny, twisty, and sometimes bittersweet, Potiche is a fluffy good time, but not entirely insubstantial. Ozon (along with Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, who wrote the play Ozon adapted) has a lot of fun with the dubious paternity of various characters in the movie, in part because Potiche is essentially French farce, and in part because the movie is trying to say that people of different classes and backgrounds should be nicer to each other, because we’re all brothers—literally, in some cases. And though the “sisters are doing it for themselves” theme is hardly novel, the period setting gives it a raison d’être, as does the presence of former Umbrellas Of Cherbourg ingénue Deneuve, playing a woman who knows a little about what makes a good parapluie.
If nothing else, it’s a treat to see French cinema legends Deneuve and Depardieu in a movie that uses their iconic status so slyly, making reference to their characters’ wilder pasts, and showing they still have some juice left. More than that, though, it’s a treat to see Ozon so on-point. Potiche has a spark that’s been missing from even some of Ozon’s more florid recent films. It isn’t a comeback per se, but a case of a director in full command of his craft, turning out a more attractive product than he has been of late.