Robert (Luchini) was given part ownership and management of the plant as his wife’s dowry, and his don’t give an inch management style is proving harmful in a number of ways. When a labor dispute over working conditions turns into a wildcat strike, Robert loses control, assaults a worker, is taken “hostage” by the strikers, attacks his own son who tries to mediate, and eventually suffers a mild heart attack, which takes him out of the management of the plant for his health. By the time he has recovered and is ready to take up the reins again, he finds that Suzanne (Deneuve) has, with the assistance of the Communist party Mayor and Deputy Babin (Gerard Depardieu), settled labor issues, turned the old dingy plant into a clean bright workplace, and, with the assistance of her son and daughter, expanded the firm’s markets and product offerings. Robert wants his old job back, but Suzanne isn’t ready to relinquish it, which sets off a power struggle that unearths a lot of hidden past for the characters.
The title, “Potiche,” literally translates as a “vase”, but the term “trophy wife” is used in the subtitles. This is a bit different meaning of the phrase than we are used to: in this context, “potiche” means something that is put on the shelf and looked at, but not used. It is this sort of life that Suzanne breaks out of: she has convinced herself that managing her home, enjoying her grandchildren, and writing poetry are ample compensations for the loveless and sexless state of her marriage.
“Potiche” is a comedy and comes out with a positive ending, but it is striking how much of the theme and situation is shared with Tilda Swinton’s tragic “I Am Love.” There is a great deal of story in this film, as we work out the relationships between Robert, Suzanne, their children, Babin, and Mlle. Nadege (the factory secretary and Robert’s mistress, played by Karin Viard), with a number of surprises and twists. Very enjoyable all around.
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