Potiche: Catherine Deneuve as the Feminist Trophy Wife

Film

In François Ozon’s film Potiche (2010), renowned actress Catherine Deneuve plays a potiche, or trophy wife, from 1977 named Suzanne Pujol. We watch as her husband, Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini) simultaneously treats her as a queen—insisting that her place is not in the kitchen—yet reproaches her for the assumption that she has a place in the politics of the family business, an umbrella factory. Her husband is as nasty to his wife as he is to his children, his secretary/mistress, and his factory workers. After a particularly jarring day at work—where the workers have been striking and holding Monsieur Pujol hostage in his office—Robert suffers from a heart attack. When there is no one else to run the business in his place, Madame Pujol finally gets the opportunity to use her voice. Her family chaffs at the idea of her becoming the new CEO of the company, even if temporarily. Yet she is determined and competent and eventually forges a new place for herself within the company, as well as within her family.

Catherine Bodard Silver, who wrote about French women’s liberation in a 1973 article entitled Salon, Foyer, Bureau: Women and the Professions in France, asserts that feminists were slow to organize in France due to French perception that women were representative of "high culture." Because working class women were involved in French class struggles, specific organizing around issues of gender seems to have been relegated to French bourgeois women. She describes a woman’s place in the French bourgeoisie as one of object—one which is expected to perform aesthetic perfection, to refrain from all modes of work—including house work, which servants perform under management of the husband—to embody and, in turn, reproduce the values of French bourgeois culture, and in the words of Balzac: “to excite the hearts of men,” the latter of which is reflected in the character of Robert Pujol.

We first meet Monsieur Pujol as he is barking at the servant for his morning coffee. When Madame Pujol arrives with his coffee instead, he is shocked and upset to see his wife stepping outside of her ideal role as a woman of leisure. She responds that she doesn’t mind performing occasionally such domestic duties and that, once in a while, she likes to find herself alone in her own kitchen. To which, of course, he responds that it is not her role or her place: “You are Madame Pujol. Don’t forget that.” Later, as they are eating their toast, he recounts the business meeting of the night before, one that had ended at an erotic dance club called Badaboum. She asks if he would take her to one of these business meetings sometime. Again, he asserts: “Are you crazy? That’s not your place!” She retorts, “It’s not my place in the kitchen. It’s not my place at Badaboum. Where is my place, then?”

According to Catherine Bodard Silver, the absolute number of professional women in France was only half that of working men in 1968. Bodard Silver explains that French women predominated within the fields of primary and secondary education, as well as in public administration. Feminist theorists who influenced French feminist thought, such as Simone de Bouvoir, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva, wrote about ideas such as the social construction of femininity, identity politics, and woman as “other,” ideas that tend to limit accessibility to only intellectual or academic circles. Meanwhile, in the United States, feminism was revolving around politics and organizing. Second wave feminism gained momentum within circles of white upper middle class women and focused on equal access to jobs, as well as on abortion rights, with leaders such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. Women of color in the United States also emerged as prominent feminist leaders in the 1970s into the 1980s, when writers such as Audre Lourde and bell hooks brought issues of race and class to the gender discussion. Later, third wave feminism in the United States would see race, class, and gender as inextricable components of a greater discourse. Yet, Potiche represents the struggle of the French bourgeois woman in 1977 in her determination to reclaim professional spaces normally relegated to men. François Ozon attempts to answer Suzanne Pujol’s question, “Where is my place, then?”

When Suzanne Pujol’s daughter, Joëlle (Judith Godrèche), critiques her for accepting everything—her place as a trophy wife; the authoritarian behavior of her husband—with a seemingly detached air, Madame Pujol responds, “I have my children, my garden, the grocery, my poems.” When Joëlle further questions her happiness, Madame Pujol responds that of course she is happy. In regards to her own happiness, dreams, and desires, Joëlle avows: “The worst for me would be to become like you, mom—a trophy wife.” With the motivation to prove herself to her family, Suzanne seeks advice from an old lover and ex-union organizer, Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu) for ending the strike at the factory. He supports her in her friendly negotiation with the workers, and she eventually reestablishes peace at the factory. When Robert attempts to return to his post after his recuperation, Suzanne is unwilling to give up her power so easily. She has skillfully maneuvered through a strike and has been running the business successfully for months. When he asks, “Who is the boss here?” she responds, “I am.” She continues that she is a fair boss who manages the company with warmth and smiles and that she doesn’t see any reason why she should give it up now. The problem, of course, is that, although Suzanne has reclaimed power, she is still operating within gender stereotypes of ideal womanhood—of motherly warmth, sweetness, and compassion. In other words, she still embodies the ideals of a French bourgeois woman while simultaneous breaking gendered stereotypes about women’s role in the workforce. Yet, for 1977, perhaps this was the first step toward breaking gendered boundaries.

If nothing else, Potiche is a funny and interesting foray into the world of 1977 France. While the breadth of Suzanne Pujol’s feminism is limited, Ozon offers a wonderfully kitsch and yet insightful peek into the evolving role of French women in the late 1970s. According to Catherine Bodard Silver, women’s liberation in France during this decade was still somewhat limited to intellectual or bourgeois circles. French working class women were too busy working and fighting class struggle to be concerned with middle class and bourgeois women having greater access to the professions. Nevertheless, Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, two of the most renowned French actors of our time, give wonderful performances, effectively drawing us into French gender and class politics in a post-May 1968 world. Potiche is now playing in the United States, Portugal, Spain, and Germany as a limited release. You can see it in the United Kingdom on June 17.

Feminism, France, Women's Rights