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At The Movies: Potiche and Bill Cunningham New York

Potiche

Directed by François Ozon
On January 6th, we reviewed “Made in Dagenham,” a true story, set in the Ford car plant in Dagenham, England in 1968.  At that time, the 187 female workers had loyally gone on strike multiple times in support of their 55,000 male colleagues but had never called a strike of their own. The factory was dependent on their work, stitching seats and other fabric components for the cars. It’s a great film that explores this time in history, in terms of labor relations, gender politics, and society in general. And it depicts a significant political development, as a strike called by the women ultimately led to Britain’s Equal Pay Act of 1970.  

Now we have another film that covers much of the same territory, but in an entirely different tone. “Potiche” is a French comedy set in 1977-1978 and centering around an umbrella factory. The factory is run by M. Pujol, who married into the family business of his beautiful wife, played by Catherine Deneuve. M. Pujol is about as right-wing and authoritarian as is conceivable, and the factory is dominated by his constant struggles with the workers and their unions. Meanwhile, his wife stays home and amuses herself with minor chores and even more minor poetry. According to the film’s production notes, the word ‘potiche’ in French literally refers to an attractive but empty vase, but in this context is used in a manner equivalent to our concept of a ‘trophy wife’ (the film’s English title). M. Pujol is quite happy in his chauvinistic world.  

The Pujols have two adult children, a daughter who shares her father’s outlook on life and a son who is an artist who cares as little for wealth as he does for his father’s politics. They have a good life, paid for by the factory’s success, with servants, foreign cars, and financial security. But they also have stress, especially M. Pujol who goes to work every day as though he’s going to war. This takes its toll and circumstances cause him to be unable to work. Encouraged by an old friend, who is now both the local mayor and a left-wing member of French parliament (played by Gerard Depardieu), Madam Pujol takes over the factory, coming at the role from a very different perspective than her recovering husband.

The film manages to combine a dysfunctional family with the broader stereotypes and political dynamics of the time. But it is also intentionally relevant to today, partly inspired by the play of the same name, but also a desire by the director to write a story about modern French politics, the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkosy, and the coincidental presidential run in 2007 of his female opponent, Ségolène Royal. For example, I was reliably informed by Sac State’s (and the Sacramento French Film Festival’s) Professor Kevin Elstob, that the script contains several quotes or paraphrased quotes attributable to the candidates.

But it’s also simply fun and funny.  Aside from the political content and the social commentary regarding the time and place, it’s a neat film. It’s also very French, with marital dynamics, affairs, and an attitude towards sex that probably contribute to its R rating, despite very little that is either visually or verbally graphic. “Potiche” should appeal to both lovers of foreign films and those who enjoy social commentary and satire.

Bill Cunningham New York

Directed by Richard Press
Whether riding around New York on his bicycle, or cataloging the runways in Paris, Bill Cunningham photographs the highs and lows of fashion for two columns in the New York Times. Originally a hat designer in the late 1940s and later a fashion writer for the Chicago Tribune and other publications, he started printing photographs in the Times in the 1970s. Over time, as a result of constant and critical observation, he’s become a de facto authority on fashion and New York society, but always with an eye for the clothes rather than the people wearing them.

On the street and at benefits, he targets ordinary people and fashionistas alike with the same discerning eye. There’s a neat irony, for example, in watching Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, who was featured in 2009’s “The September Issue” and generally considered to be the inspiration behind Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada,” who can easily make or break designs and designers, describing the feeling of being ignored by Bill. She and others clearly respect his eye for fashion.

It’s a fascinating and engaging film about an intensely private man, who has refused money or gifts to maintain the integrity of his work, living in the midst of negative-filled filing cabinets in a bathroom-less apartment. A man who has also been honored as an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture for his fashion photography (where he compulsively took photographs of the guests at his own investiture). If you like photography, fashion, or people (or urban bicyclists) – check it out.

The Friday night opening screening at the Crest Theatre is also a benefit for Sacramento’s Verge Center for the Arts. The screening will be preceded by a fashion “trunk show” featuring local boutiques, and will be followed by a panel discussion including several local fashion bloggers. More details at www.thecrest.com.


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