"Potiche" is a glossy throwback made with a modern eye, an old-fashioned romantic fantasy starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu that's been knowingly updated with tart, contemporary touches.
The updater is François Ozon, who's been down this road before. Though the French writer-director is mostly known for such serious dramas as "Swimming Pool" and "Time to Leave," he did another glossy confection, "8 Women," which also starred Deneuve.
What Ozon has done is freely adapt a 1980 mainstream "theatre de boulevard" play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy (whose work also inspired the Goldie Hawn-starring "Cactus Flower"). He's kept the silliness of the plot but expanded on it and conveyed everything in an arch, high-style way that provides a showcase for the proficiency of the film's two stars.
Deneuve plays the matronly Suzanne Pujol, introduced circa 1977 in a flame-red exercise suit, her hair in curlers as she serenely jogs through the forest outside a provincial French town. When Suzanne blows kisses to the birds, we could be in an MGM musical, but when she glimpses two rabbits mating, we know we're not in Kansas anymore.
Suzanne is the potiche, or trophy wife, of the title, the word originally meaning a vase whose only value or use is decorative. Content because she's decided to be happy, Suzanne needs every bit of her placid and unflappable exterior to survive her marriage to Robert Pujol.
As played by the expert farceur Fabrice Luchini, a veteran of five Eric Rohmer films and the more recent "The Girl From Monaco," Robert is an always apoplectic captain of industry who is sleeping with his secretary (Karin Viard) but still makes time to have a bad word for everyone. When he screams "Do you think it's fun running an umbrella factory?," we have to laugh.
This couple's two children are as different as their parents. Conservative daughter Joelle (Judith Godrèche) dreads ending up like her mother even as she fears that her own marriage is breaking up, while her brother, Paul (Jérémie Renier), is interested in art, not factories.
Upending everyone's routines is a strike at that very umbrella factory, where aggrieved workers, incensed at Robert's perpetual arrogance, not only go on strike but take the obstreperous owner hostage.
One thing leads farcically to another and soon it's apparent that Suzanne is going to have to run the factory. Though her family thinks of her as nothing more than "the queen of kitchen appliances," Suzanne turns out to have untapped resources of people management that stand her in good stead.
Though no one knows it but the audience, Suzanne also benefits from her relationship with Maurice Babin (Depardieu). A fiery communist who is the town's mayor as well as its member of Parliament, Babin is also an old beau who still pines for Suzanne, a woman, he tells her, without "the arrogance of your class."
Suzanne taking over the factory may sound like the end of the story, but in fact it's the merest beginning, as all kinds of loopy plot twists and turns constantly remake and redefine the relationships among these characters.
While keeping everything light and frothy, Ozon has also laced "Potiche" with persistent references to issues of gender and economic equality that have as much if not more relevance to today as to the period in question.
Helping to keep this ship from keeling over is the great professionalism and light touch of Deneuve and Depardieu. Costars numerous times, they go together as comfortably as an old pair of gloves. "Potiche" very much counts on this, and it has not miscalculated.