A film that embraces a decade many believe style forgot, Potiche (directed by François Ozon) is an enthusiastically 1977 set comedy starring Catherine Deneuve as Suzanne Pujol, so-called ‘trophy wife’ of the title. Suzanne considers herself less important than the clothes she wears. These along with copious make-up and hairspray are what Suzanne feels she needs to face the world. As static as a decorative vase (a ‘potiche’), she is there for display only. Imagine Deneuve’s icy Séverine in Belle de Jour retired from Paris and living in the countryside.
Costume designer Pascaline Chavanne used a combination of deadstock and vintage fabrics for Suzanne’s various ensembles. The red tracksuit employed heavily during Potiche’s marketing is a focal point for Catherine Deneuve’s look because it drastically destabilises her image as an elegant sex symbol. Throughout the narrative, Suzanne’s outfits evolve from housewifey prints to smart box suits. Beginning with that alarming leisurewear, we meet a whole new Belle; still beautiful, just frumpier.
What better than a two piece red with white stripes tracksuit to destroy our preconceptions of one of the 20th century’s most glamorous film stars? Director François Ozon plunges us into a world unknown for Deneuve, while at the same time broadcasting the story’s late seventies setting. This symbolism, plus retro credits and music, ironically evoke a British sitcom air. The only element lacking is a riotous studio audience. The tracksuit was made especially for Potiche by Veron. Its cut is forgivingly feminine; the jacket, for example, lacks a pinching elastic hem – similar to that seen on Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003).
After jogging and dreamily admiring the local wildlife, Suzanne makes breakfast for her male chauvinist husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), slipping a garish blue tabard covered in concentric circles over her tracksuit. Suzanne is submissive to Robert; she fusses over him like a mother. It is soon revealed (to the audience) that Robert is conducting an affair with Nadège (Karin Viard), personal assistant at the umbrella factory he runs.
Suzanne and Nadège conduct a brief split screen conversation on the telephone concerning Robert forgetting his prescription medication. At this point it becomes clear they are flipsides of the same woman; one a housewife, one a mistress; both doing the same job.
In the company of her daughter, Joëlle (Judith Godrèche), Suzanne has changed into a grey and white wide plaid dress with attached self tie scarf forming a bow worn underneath a taupe open-weave waistcoat. Particularly visible here is Suzanne’s gold locket charm bracelet, seen with every outfit in the film – a particularly fashionable item for the period. Moreover, note the thin belt Suzanne wears around her dress; according to Catherine Deneuve it was “always a belt in the 1970s”. Also apparent are Deneuve’s brown high heel court shoes, reminiscent of the famous Roger Viver pilgrim pair (minus buckle) she wore in Belle de Jour.
Talking to her son, Laurent (Jérémie Renier), his clothes possibly the most era specific in the entire cast, Suzanne again dons the dazzling tabard, though pulls the bow from her dress over the neckline. Suzanne cries out to be well groomed, even when chopping raw meat in the kitchen. In the next scene she had changed again, into a knee length dark green dress with red flower print and bow neckline. Her hair is up; she appears prim yet relaxed for a quiet evening with her grandchildren. After Nadège arrives wearing a memorable tweed cape coat to explain that Robert has been involved in a fracas with workers at the factory, Suzanne adopts a disguise to visit old flame and now local mayor, Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu).
In a double-breasted brown wool coat with blue pattern lining and fur collar, plus swirly silk scarf wrapped around her head and dark sunglasses, Suzanne, once again, looks every inch an older version of Séverine. Perhaps the coat would be more A-line, perhaps it originally was, but especially in Babin’s apartment, there is no mistaking the resemblance. During the proceeding flashback to Suzanne and Babin’s tryst in the woods, she is wearing an Audrey Hepburn-esque white and pink floral organdie dress and wide brim hat – spot on for the period (early 1950s).
The next day Suzanne chooses a grey and white wide check shirt-dress with brass buttons and beige cardigan worn over her shoulders. This is an important moment as she confronts Robert, now recuperating from a seizure, about his philandering. Robert’s coldness causes Suzanne to become uncharacteristically emotional. She pulls the cardigan close around her for comfort. After Babin arrives at the Pujol family home causing Robert to have yet another seizure, the decision is made to have Suzanne run the umbrella factory during his convalescence.
For her inaugural speech to the workers, Suzanne decides to wear the hilariously inappropriate floral organdie dress (presumably now re-tailored) with pearls and a white fur shrug to cover her arms. Suzanne equates power with femininity; if she feels pretty, she feels powerful. Oddly, Suzanne continues to wear this dress in the evening when she asks Joëlle and Laurent to join her at the factory, though has swapped the fur shrug for that open-weave beige cardigan.
Suzanne’s next ensemble is something special, a purple chiffon dress with three-quarter sleeves and ruffles gathered at the wrist and neckline beneath a matching bow. She dons this to attend the Badaboum nightclub with Babin where they perform the funniest shuffle of a dance since Vincent and Mia’s unforgettable shamble in Pulp Fiction (1994). This is not a transformation for Suzanne; more of a mad moment when she lets go and embraces her new found confidence. That said she is not keen to rekindle their romance, despite Babin’s advances.
The story then zips forward a few weeks marking Suzanne’s real transformation from trophy wife to businesswoman. Leaving behind housedresses and that tracksuit, she wears an orangey/brown knee length skirt, dusty pink blouse with spread bow neckline and brown waistcoat with light geometric pattern and contrast trim. This classic box silhouette was perfected by Coco Chanel in the 1930s, although became most popular when she came out of retirement in the 50’s. This outfit tells us that Suzanne is doing great things at the umbrella factory, even without the obvious dialogue. Contrasting rational with sex appeal is Nadège in a green pencil skirt, red rollneck sweater and astonishing pointed bra.
When Robert returns to the factory, in a nice costume touch wearing a blazer to signify his vacation on a cruise, Suzanne sends him home to watch daytime TV. He becomes the emasculated male, eating snacks in his dressing gown, transfixed by bland television; in a sense, Robert has become his wife, only she was far better at it.
Another important outfit for Suzanne is her two piece tartan blue suit and matching cape, long sleeve purple blouse with silk scarf tied to a bow and high heel court shoes. She has appropriated clothes for business her way. Not as trivial as the organdie dress or severe as the brown waistcoat and skirt, Suzanne has found a way to make fashion and professionalism co-exist in the workplace.
Unfortunately at this stage, Babin discovers that with this new found confidence comes the strength to face up to her past. Suzanne was not the chaste angel he once seduced in a hedgerow, but a sexually active and available woman. Babin was just one lover of many. He is so deflated (another emasculated male) that he drives away from their rendezvous leaving Suzanne to walk home in heels – until she finds a friendly truck driver that is. Her eye wanders, although we never get to discover how far.
Afterwards, when a dossier is leaked apparently revealing Suzanne’s controversial plans for the factory, she appears on television in a wide stripe brown and green suit accompanied by red and brown stripe silk scarf. At this juncture it is impossible not to notice that all of Catherine Deneuve’s costumes cover her neckline. Of course this is only conjecture, but one presumes it was a way of hiding her true age (she was 66 when shooting). Maybe this was a decision by Deneuve, or maybe Ozon and Chavanne? Yet, this style works for her and is completely on trend for the era.
A board meeting is held at the factory to decide Suzanne’s fate. She arrives with son Laurent in a short sleeve green/brown diagonal check suit with rever collar, white blouse with attached self-tie scarf and white narrow belt. Her skirt is particularly interesting as it features several tiny knife pleats that sway as she walks. However, the meeting does not go well and Suzanne is voted off her position as factory manager (a factory that her grandfather started), meaning she is required to hand back control to the now reinstated masculinity of her husband.
As such we see a brief return of trophy wife Suzanne, jogging again, this time in a blue and white stripe Veron tracksuit. Although she has not regressed entirely; the colour signifies a change in her character. Suzanne is clearer now and more in control. Hence the reason she is back in serious tweed that evening for dinner, announcing her plans to run for mayoral office against Babin.
For the campaign portion of the story, Suzanne dons several different outfits, each seen briefly as we cut from one locale to another. First is a grey tweed bell coat with Macfarlane cape and wellington boots. Evidently Suzanne is more than happy to trudge through a stable, though will insist on being properly attired. When making cheese in a dairy she wears a short sleeve lilac suit with rever collar and matching belt. This is one of the only times Suzanne is seen without a scarf, although her long sleeve graph paper check blouse is tightly buttoned to the neckline.
Once more reminiscent of Séverine, Suzanne stands outside the umbrella factory distributing leaflets in red single breasted A-line coat accessorised with the same red and brown silk scarf she wore on television. This is akin to the mid-length grey wool coat Catherine Deneuve wore in Belle de Jour, although that was double breasted with epaulettes, yet the outline is similar. Suzanne is as classy and elegant as Séverine, but dares to be seen. In fact, she wants to be seen.
Campaigning in the street, Suzanne again opts for the grey tweed cape coat, this time with a rich purple silk blouse underneath. The next scene sees Nadège return in her own fabulous tweed cape coat. François Ozon was keen to show that these women are not a million miles apart in both style and personality.
Encountering Babin in the market, Suzanne wears her A-line red coat over a dramatic blue Harlequin check suit, plus a red, orange and brown silk scarf. Even nearby housewives comment that Suzanne, “must have been dieting”. The affect of prioritising Suzanne above all else in the scene draws our interest with the same conviction as it does her potential voters.
Suzanne’s high rever collar pajamas in blue paisley print inform us this is her private time; she does not feel the need to ‘dress up’, forgoing even a shawl. Incidentally the matter of whether to wear a shawl, its possible colour and fabric was something discussed at length by Catherine Deneuve as the scene was shot.
Come Election Day and Suzanne is head to toe green in a box suit with subtle leopard print fur collar. In fact she completely matches the green curtains of the polling booths behind her. Suzanne is now indistinguishable from the political environment in which she operates; she is completely at home there. The animal print collar adds a welcome touch of glamour. After all, Suzanne may not be a trophy wife anymore but she is not all politics. Most important is that she remains true to herself.
Suzanne’s last change is for her victory speech as a newly appointed official, wearing a two piece white suit with rever collar, patch pockets and unusual tab closure to the waist. Her teal silk blouse with unwavering bow neckline adds a mere hint of allure. Along with Suzanne’s hair, now in a chic up-do, this modern outfit suggests a more progressive future for her.
This suit echoes the Khaki shirt-dress Catherine Deneuve wore for the early brothel scenes in Belle de Jour. However, whereas in Belle de Jour, Deneuve was costumed to appear cool and detached, in Potiche she wants everyone to notice her. Practically, this suit functions in context as Suzanne is not then lost singing her election song. She is luminescent.
Even though Pascaline Chavanne’s costume design for Potiche showcases the late 1970s as a clashing, colourful time of wool dresses, polyester shirts, wide lapels and denim flares, this is not tacky tailoring. Chavanne has created a meaningful look for Suzanne that develops along with the narrative, while remaining tonally in balance with the film’s broad comedy. Potiche confirms that deep down Catherine Deneuve will always be Belle de Jour, only now with a sense of humour. Any sex symbol that will happily jog on screen in a bright red tracksuit with her hair in a net deserves our respect, and a chuckle or two.
Potiche is released on Blu-ray and DVD on 10th October.
You can watch Catherine Deneuve in Potiche at LOVEFiLM.com.
© 2011 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.