Potiche (R) (103 min.) — Just try to not smile when French cinema icons Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu share the screen in Francois Ozon's frothy comedy. I'm guessing that's impossible, with these two genuine examples of movie stardom. Both are older and in Depardieu's case beefier than their primes, but the years melt away as they banter and flirt, each assured of their legacies and consummate appeal.
Deneuve plays Suzanne Pujol, the dissatisfied potiche (i.e. trophy wife) of umbrella manufacturer Robert (Fabrice Luchini), whose factory workers have gone on strike. It's 1977, a candy-coated era when women were beginning to assert themselves. Suzanne gets her chance when Robert is taken hostage by the strikers. She's reluctant at first to assume her husband's role in negotiating a settlement but finds she has a knack for it.
Equally surprised is union advocate Maurice Babin (Depardieu), who shared a tryst with Suzanne years ago and never forgot it. They're adversaries with an intimate history, and their scenes together percolate with furtive passion. Even a silly dance routine in a disco comes across as an awkward mating ritual. Deneuve and Depardieu are so comfortable together that Potiche feels at times like eavesdropping on old friends.
Ozon's adaptation of a Barillet-Grédy play (they also authored Cactus Flower) often betrays its stage roots, with extended sequences in one setting and convenient entrances leading to the next misunderstanding. Some characters are exaggerated to farcical levels, especially Robert's chauvinism and role-swapping with Suzanne; he becomes a trophy husband befuddled by her spreading influence, turning his secretary/paramour (Karin Viard) against her grabby boss.
The plot is a piffle but Ozon's presentation is gloriously romantic — we're constantly reminded of Deneuve's freely spirited turn in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg — culminating in Deneuve leading a climactic song in an improbable circumstance. "C'est bon la vie," she croons; how beautiful life is. For the entire running time of Potiche we can't argue with that.
Shown with English subtitles. A- (Tampa Theatre)
Steve Persall, Times film critic