Ozon tackles serious issues with comedy

'Potiche' looks at worker-boss dynamic through femme POV

Francois Ozon’s competition player “Potiche,” his first comedy since 2002’s “8 Women,” drew guffaws and final applause — rare at Venice — at its Saturday morning press screening.

As the fest settled into its rhythm after a hectic first three days, the omens have been good for the Catherine Deneuve starrer.

Distribbed in France by Mars, “Potiche” goes out on 500-600 prints on Nov. 10, a sign of distributor confidence. In a long lead-in campaign, Mars has already flooded Paris with humor-laced billboards.

Based on Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy’s play and sold by Wild Bunch, “Potiche” has closed Italy (Bim) and Japan (Gaga Communications). These days, the sign of a successful film abroad is a sale to Japan.

Offers from the U.S., U.K., Germany and Spain are on the table as the film segues from the Lido to the Toronto Festival.

Ozon is heartened enough by “Potiche” to think he’d like to try his hand at another film mixing comedy and drama.

“There’s nothing better for a director than to hear an audience laughing or crying,” Ozon said Saturday at Venice’s Excelsior Hotel.

Better than the six Gallic Cesars film awards that he’s received?

“In ‘Swimming Pool,’ there’s a quote from Billy Wilder: ‘Awards are like hemorrhoids, sooner or later every asshole gets one,’ ” Ozon retorted.

One common reaction among critics has been that “Potiche” bears comparison to “8 Women”: both mix humor and melodrama, play with genre, boast musical numbers and star Deneuve.

“8 Women” grossed ?21.7 million ($27.9 million) in France.

Unsurprisingly, Ozon isn’t ruffled by the comparison. “I’m an auteur, but it’s a comedy, and people want to laugh. They have a lot of problems. There are a lot of strikes in France. And ‘8 Women’ was a huge success.”

“Potiche,” set in 1977, toplines Deneuve as Suzanne, who’s married to a rich industrialist. Pic charts her rise from trophy wife to factory manager to member of parliament.

“It’s the story of a woman’s emancipation. At the end of the film Suzanne finds her place in society,” said Ozon said.

Keeping the 1970s setting brings issues sharply into focus and allows a more comedic take on contempo society, Ozon said.

“Women’s situation has changed but not so much. Women are not paid the same as men for the same job and there’s still a lot of machismo,” said Ozon.

Having followed socialist Segolene Royale on the campaign trail for France’s 2007 presidential elections, he laced “Potiche” with real-life political lines.

At one point in “Potiche,” Robert, the industrialist, confronting a strike at his factory, storms that if the workers want to earn more, they should work more.

The line was one of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 slogans, Ozon said.