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Interview with François Ozon

François Ozon on the set of Potiche

In the beginning…

I’d been wanting to make a film about women’s place in society and politics for a long time. When I saw the play POTICHE by Barillet and Grédy, about ten years ago, I immediately thought it was great material for a film. But it took me a long time to make it mine, to figure out how to adapt and modernize it. I felt I could achieve the tone and verve of screwball comedies, but I didn’t want to end up making a backward-looking film, disconnected from reality. There were two catalysts for launching the project. First, meeting the Altmayer brothers, producers, who proposed I do a political film about Nicolas Sarkozy in the spirit of Stephen Frears’ THE QUEEN. Second, the 2007 presidential elections in France, during which I followed Ségolène Royal’s campaign with interest.

Adapting the play

I quickly realized that adapting this play was going to be very different than it had been for the two previous plays I adapted. Both of the others took place in confined quarters, so my approach had been voluntarily theatrical. WATER DROPS ON BURNING ROCKS was about emotional confinement and imprisonment within a couple. 8 WOMEN was an opportunity to put a group of women - actresses - in a cage and observe their behavior. POTICHE, on the other hand, is a story of emancipation. It’s about letting Suzanne out of her cage so she can take on the outside world. The film was thus shot mostly on location, whereas the other two had been shot entirely in the studio. As I worked on the adaptation, I became aware that by simply tweaking a few details already present in the play, I could draw parallels with today’s society and the current political climate. There are more women running businesses or running for office now, but many of the problems and attitudes they face haven’t changed much in thirty years.

The play ends with Suzanne taking over the factory and jilting both her husband and her communist lover. I added a third act, in which the husband regains control of the factory. Out of this humiliation and frustration comes Suzanne’s desire to enter politics and get her revenge. The idea of a political career for Suzanne was alluded to in the play, when, at one point, she says in jest, “One day, I’ll run for office. I’ve run a factory, I can surely run France!”

I met regularly with Pierre Barillet during the writing process, so he could read my different versions. He was very supportive, provided lots of ideas and did not resist my transformations. On the contrary, he was happy to see the play getting a new life. He didn’t feel like I was betraying his work, he felt like I was taking it to new places.

Maintaining the 1970s context

Keeping the action in the 1970s provided distance and allowed us to make references to the current economic crisis in a humorous way, which was important to me. Setting the action in the present would have made for a heavier film. And it wouldn’t have made sense for the Babin character to be so important: in France back then, the Communist Party carried 20% of the vote. And significantly, French society was far more divided at the time. People on the right never mixed with people on the left, and vice versa. They were two separate worlds, especially in the provinces. Back then, if a factory owner’s wife slept with a communist MP, she was committing a supreme act of transgression!

It was also a lot of fun to recreate the period. I was a kid back then, so it was amusing to play around with my memories. But I didn’t want to fall into nostalgia or clichés like bellbottoms, psychedelic orange or the sexual revolution. I wanted to create a relatively realistic view of the 70s. Especially considering the story takes place in a small town, and people in small towns don’t always adopt new fashions and attitudes right away. Suzanne’s look is in fact more 60s or even 50s.

From théâtre de boulevard to melodrama

When I read the play, I thought it was very funny, but what touched me the most was the almost tragic relationship between Suzanne and Babin. It has strong melodramatic potential: the passage of time, growing older, disillusionment with love, a certain melancholy... I loved the scene where Babin proposes to Suzanne that they be together, but she says they’re too old for such things. I felt that scene would benefit from a less ironic, less comic, more serious approach. The play was essentially a vehicle for the comic actress Jacqueline Maillan, and she played the role accordingly. People went to see her and to laugh, so her Suzanne was infused with comic distance from the start, and wasn’t overly bothered when her husband or her daughter were mean to her. She always had the last word. For the film, however, I felt the character should feel the pain and humiliation of the verbal and psychological abuse she receives, so the actress would need to play it straight. As a consequence, the opening scenes - that had people in stitches in the theater - are much more cruel in my film. Making the cruelty more than just a joke means a bigger pay-off as the film progresses and Suzanne breaks free of her shackles. I wanted the audience to identify with, and be moved by, this “trophy wife who refuses to stay on the shelf”. POTICHE is a feminist film in that sense: it takes its character’s personal journey seriously. As an audience, we like her, we root for her and we’re happy when she blossoms, like in an American success story.

In France, théâtre de boulevard is a genre characterized by light, silly, often outrageous comedy. Typically, all possible transgressions are explored - social, familial, emotional, political - but in the end, everyone always lands on their feet. Middle-class audiences want to laugh at all that is titillating or frightening, as long as everything goes back to normal in the end. In my adaptation, I tried to shake things up for real: as a woman, Suzanne finds a legitimate place in society, turning the patriarchal order on its head, and her son is actually having an incestuous relationship.

Catherine Deneuve as a potiche…

Rather than trying to find a pale imitation of Jacqueline Maillan, I decided to cast against type and offered the role to Catherine Deneuve, who, as I knew from my experience with her on 8 WOMEN, would know how to flesh out the character and give her the necessary depth for audience identification. Catherine is an earthy actress, she makes situations real and creates empathy for the character. In the beginning, Suzanne is a caricature, as are the other characters. She’s the good little wife of a small-town factory owner, but gradually, she breaks free and undergoes a series of transformations to become a new woman. Using the character as a starting point, I wanted to explore the woman, and then end the film with the actress, in the final scene.

It was a real pleasure working with Catherine again. On 8 WOMEN there had been some tension, as it was an ensemble piece, and I had imposed a certain neutrality on myself: she was one among eight. We weren’t able to establish the privileged relationship we both would have liked. But on POTICHE, we were thick as thieves right from the start. I met with her early on, before I’d even found the producers. I asked her, “How would you like to play a potiche?”. She was all for it. It was important for me to have her tacit agreement before launching the project. She followed the development stages: writing, production, casting. She invested herself in the character, who she loved. We really had a lot of fun on the shoot.

Suzanne’s men

To accompany my French woman, Suzanne, I needed two heavyweights, two strong men who could stand up to each other, two French actors representing two different acting styles. When we conjure up a celluloid lover for Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu naturally comes to mind. They’ve played so many couples on screen I knew it would work. There’s such a magical chemistry between them. I knew they’d enjoy being together and the audience would enjoy seeing them reunited as old lovers. Babin is one of my favorite characters. He’s a hopeless romantic, stuck in the past and married to his political convictions. At the same time, he’s the most poignant character. He wants to change his life, become a father, be with Suzanne, enjoy middle-class comforts: “Can’t I be happy too?”. I couldn’t imagine anyone other than Gérard Depardieu to embody this strong, rugged man with a vulnerable, sentimental side. Gérard immediately found the character amusing and familiar. For his hairstyle, we were inspired by the French trade unionist Bernard Thibault’s famous bowl cut.

Fabrice Luchini was a natural choice for the role of Robert Pujol. I thought it would be risky but interesting to pair him with Catherine Deneuve. They are so completely different in the way they work, their approach to acting, and the films they’ve made. They’re an unlikely couple, as are Robert and Suzanne, and I felt that would be conducive to comedy.

In the play, Robert is the stereotypical asshole husband and boss. He’s reactionary, dishonest and tyrannical with his workers and his loved ones, like characters played by Louis de Funès in the 70s. But I enjoyed giving him another, more childlike side. Towards the end of the film, this man who is supposed to represent cold hard management and a certain male chauvinism turns into a little boy, being devoured by his wife when he slinks into her bedroom and begs her for a kiss. Knowing how much I liked his work in the films of Eric Rohmer, Fabrice was initially surprised when I offered him the very different role of Robert Pujol. But he soon appropriated the character and injected his frenetic, over-the-top, mad acting style into the mix. He is a fearless actor who finds humor in the minutest of details.

Suzanne’s children

The three other characters - the children and the secretary - weren’t very developed in the play and didn’t exist on their own. So I needed to write stories for them and enrich them. As in the films of Douglas Sirk, I wanted to illustrate how children can often be more conservative than their parents. Especially with the character of the daughter, Joëlle, who doesn’t evolve much but does reveal herself. In the beginning, this daddy’s girl considers herself modern and criticizes her mother for being old-fashioned. However, as the mother becomes liberated in the second part, Joëlle loses her bearings and realizes she is the conservative one, a prisoner of convention, incapable of divorcing or getting an abortion, unable to find her own freedom.

During the screen tests, Judith Godrèche immediately understood that Joëlle needed to be a real little brat, capable of casually tossing off the cruelest of remarks with a smile. She was unconcerned with making the character likeable, knowing the inherent value of playing the bad guy. She also found the physical transformation amusing. She enjoyed becoming a reincarnation of Farrah Fawcett, with her ash blond feathered tresses and ultra bright smile. Joëlle outwardly appears to be the most modern of all the characters, but deep down she is in fact the most conservative. The son, Paul, is the kind of character you’d see in a Molière comedy. In a tradition Jacques Demy perpetuated in his films, young people fall innocently into incestuous relationships, until a deus ex machina breaks the tension. Paul wasn’t initially meant to be homosexual, but I thought it would make a nice final twist to transfer the incest onto a relationship between two men, raising the question: is it still incest if there’s no risk of having a child? The twist isn’t that Paul turns out to be homosexual - I think that’s obvious pretty early on - but instead that he’s unwittingly involved with his own half-brother. Or in any case, someone who could be his half-brother.

It was great working with Jérémie Renier again, ten years after CRIMINAL LOVERS (1999). I’ve followed his career and admire his work as an actor. In this film, I wanted to see him smiling, cheerful, breezy and sexy, as opposed to the dark roles he usually plays. His blond hair and svelte physique were perfect for the 1970s look.

The secretary

Karin Viard felt her character should also experience a real political awakening and become liberated, not just be there to make photocopies, like in the play. The secretary goes from having a male boss to having a female boss, but she grows along the way: “I’ve learned you don’t have to spread your legs to get ahead!” Her little speech, “You will be a secretary, my dear”, in reference to Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, was something I had heard in a report about secretarial schools on the television program “Aujourd’hui Madame” (“Today’s Woman”). I wasn’t sure I would use it in the final film until the editing stage. It’s rather surrealistic, with no narrative logic - other than the fact that it addresses women’s position in society - but Karin did such a great job with it that I decided to keep it. She’s not afraid of playing stereotypes, she transcends them with depth and emotion. She was perfect for the role.

The music and the songs

I saw no reason to turn the play into a musical, but I did want to highlight the period by using songs and music of the time. For the original score, I asked Philippe Rombi to take inspiration from 1970s comedies and the scores of Vladimir Cosma and Michel Magne, and to develop two veins: one comic, linked to Robert Pujol, and one more sentimental, to illustrate the love story between Suzanne and Babin. The film moves in two directions: toward Fabrice Luchini and toward Gérard Depardieu. Catherine Deneuve is in the middle, oscillating between comedy and melodrama.

Michèle Torr’s Emmène-moi danser ce soir (Take Me Dancing Tonight) was the best-selling song in France in 1977-78. It’s about a woman asking her husband to pay attention to her like he used to, which is exactly where Suzanne finds herself at the beginning of the film. When Catherine dances and sings in the kitchen, the idea was to stay anchored in the character’s reality, with her continuing her chores as usual. I wanted us to sense that this woman is happy in her kitchen, despite it all. When we finished shooting the sequence, after she’d emptied the dishwasher a dozen times, Catherine told me, “That reminded me of the cake d’amour scene in PEAU D’ÂNE (Donkey Skin)”. I hadn’t made the connection, but I was touched by her remark.

For the dance sequence at the Badaboum, Benjamin Biolay suggested a song I didn’t know, by a group called Il était une fois (Once Upon a Time): Viens faire un tour sous la pluie (A Walk in the Rain). The song had the advantage of being from the period and having two different tempos: one slow and the other disco, in the spirit of the Bee Gees. This dance between Suzanne and Babin is about celebrating the legendary pair Deneuve/Depardieu. It’s intentionally artificial. They look into the camera. It’s a moment out of time, a little bit magical. I’m not aiming for reality here, I want to get to the essence of these two people who are having fun with each other and sharing a moment of great affection.

The song Suzanne sings at the end of the film, C’est beau la vie (How Beautiful Life Is), was written by Jean Ferrat in the 1960s for Isabelle Aubret, who had survived a serious car accident. Using the song in a political context - at the end of the victory rally, after we’ve followed Suzanne’s path to liberation - gives it another dimension. Benjamin Biolay and I wanted Catherine’s voice high in the mix, natural, unembellished, in all its fragility and truth.

The screenplay didn’t call for Babin to listen to Suzanne on the radio, but I improvised that scene with Gérard one day as we were wrapping up. I wanted him on screen one last time after their phone conversation, so I put on the music to see what he would do, just letting him improvise. Watching him listen to Catherine’s voice and sing along with her was one of the most moving moments of the shoot.