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Eight years after the crowd-pleasing “8 Women” and a mostly impressive run of small-scale arthouse films, Francois Ozon effortlessly moves back to the mainstream with another sparkling, occasionally side-splitting adaptation of a French boulevard-theater play. Set in a wackier version of 1977, “Potiche” also has a clearer feminist streak than its candy-colored, ’50s-set predecessor, even though it has just a single female lead: Catherine Deneuve. Her turn as a trophy wife-turned-triumphant factory boss ranks among her best roles in at least a decade, and with a cast that also includes Gerard Depardieu, the pic should sell like hotcakes everywhere.

The ’70s-themed opening credits immediately set the tone as Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve) jogs into view in a red tracksuit, curlers still in her hair. In a direct nod to “8 Women,” Suzanne stops as she spies a deer in the abundantly backlit woods. Her activity and outfit already seem to signal that Suzanne’s a woman ready to get ahead, though her coiffure and naive appreciation of nature suggest that, for the moment, she’s content as a well-off housewife with an interest in beauty but no other ambitions.

Though the lighting adds a theatrical touch, the forest was clearly shot on location (“8 Women” was entirely filmed indoors). Ozon’s willingness to pair his sensibility for comedic camp and cinematic pastiche with a little more realism shows a fine understanding of the main thrust of the story, which is about a woman’s liberation set against the sociorealistic backdrop of that ever-dependable French institution: the workers’ strike.

Cause of the strike, at a provincial umbrella factory, is the tyrannical behavior of Suzanne’s hubby, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who became the factory director after the death of Suzanne’s father, the founder. Early scenes are played for laughs and build toward Suzanne’s realization that, after 30 years of marriage, her husband doesn’t care about her opinions, or even her presence. She’s just a “potiche,” a decorative trophy wife.

The strike, a threat to the family biz, forces Suzanne to call on a communist ex-lover, Babin (Depardieu), who agrees to talk to the laborers. But when Robert’s too sick to negotiate with them, Suzanne hesitantly takes on his role with unexpectedly good results.

Ozon’s adaptation is loosely based on the eponymous 1980 play by the Gallic duo Barrillet and Gredy, who also wrote the play as the basis of the 1969 comedy “Cactus Flower,” which netted Goldie Hawn an Oscar. Like that story, the structure of “Potiche” is based on a triangle with two more or less fixed points and a third protag that moves back and forth between the two.

Base of the triangle is formed by Robert, played to the hilt by Luchini, who wrings each possible ounce of humor from his deliciously caricatured CEO/evil-husband role, and Babin, who still carries a torch for Suzanne, and who is a more straightforward melodramatic lead.

Depardieu, in another warm-hearted turn opposite Deneuve, finds the right notes of weariness for Babin, a somewhat tired, middle-aged idealist who’s fought for workers’ rights all his life; his presence ensures the film is about workers’ empowerment as well as that of women. Clever parallels to today’s world are clearly intentional and add a nice topicality.

Deneuve, in a pitch-perfect perf, gently oscillates between these two men and the extremes they represent. She carries the whole movie here with grace, showcasing her flawless comedic timing and dramatic acting chops without any visible effort.

The densely plotted pic, full of hilarious plot reversals often fueled by sex or infidelity, leaves ample room for three showy supporting turns: Jeremie Renier as Suzanne’s Kandinsky-crazy son, Karin Viard as Robert’s secretary and mistress, and Judith Godreche as the household’s daughter. Each has his or her own liberation or comeuppance, making for a compact whole, though the pic’s third act, which was entirely dreamt up by Ozon, doesn’t share 100% of the same DNA with what has come before.

Though the film isn’t a musical, there is some singing and a delicious soundtrack of Gallic period songs. Lensing is sharp, though a few interior scenes shot with very little light were murky at the projection caught. Costume and production design and other tech credits are of the highest level, with Ozon clearly working within the same comfortable range as “8 Women” rather than the reduced budgets of his smaller movies.

Potiche

France-Belgium

  • Production: A Mars Distribution release (in France) of a Mandarin Cinema presentation of a Mandarin Cinema, FOZ, France 2 Cinema, Mars Films, Wild Bunch (France)/Scope Pictures (Belgium) production, in association with Canal Plus, TPS Star, France Televisions, Region Wallonne. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer. Directed, written by Francois Ozon, based on the play by Pierre Barrillet, Jean-Pierre Gredy.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Yorick Le Saux; editor, Laure Gardette; music, Philippe Rombi; production designer, Katia Wyszkop; costume designer, Pascaline Chavanne; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Jean-Paul Hurier; line producer, Pierre Wallon; assistant director, Hubert Barbin; casting, Sarah Teper, Leila Fournier, Mickael de Nijs. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 4, 2010. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Galas.) Running time: 103 MIN.
  • With: With: Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Karin Viard, Judith Godreche, Jeremie Renier, Sergi Lopez, Evelyne Dandry, Bruno Lochet, Elodie Frege, Gautier About, Jean-Baptiste Shelmerdine, Noam Charlier, Martin de Myttenaere. (French dialogue)
  • Music By: