Interview: François Ozon, director of ‘Potiche’

Recently, CineVue were fortunate enough to meet up with director François Ozon to discuss his latest film Potiche (2011), a wonderfully vibrant and energetic comedy about trophy wife Suzanne Pujol, played by the lady of French cinema Catherine Deneuve. We met at the Institut Français in Queensbury Place and started with discussing how he adapted the story from theatre to film. Potiche will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on 10 October, 2011.

Joe Walsh: When did you first come across the play?

François Ozon: When I discovered the play I thought that it was an amazing part for a women, for an actress. For a star it is a great part, but I felt that the story was too old fashioned with no real links with the situation of today, especially for a women. I always had the play in mind but I didn’t know how to adapt it, I didn’t see how I could do a film from that. But at the last presidential campaign we had for the first time in France a woman in front of a man. In front of Sarkozy we had Ségolène Royal, and during the period of his campaign we had a kind of mini male chauvinist attack I thought perhaps things haven’t changed so much from the seventies. Men are still afraid of when a woman is about to take the power, so I began to work on an adaptation with this idea in mind. I went to see Catherine to ask her whether she would be my potiche, she said yes and I began working on the adaptation.

JW: What were the challenges of adapting it from a play?

FO: The challenge was not to be old fashioned, it was to play set in the seventies and it had to be adapted for a modern audience. I wanted to assume the nostalgic side of the film; it is a film about the seventies and I wanted to recreate a world of the seventies but to still have some links with the situation of today. Actually I thought the period in France, the seventies, was a period of crisis and that we have forgotten that, there was a crisis of oil, crisis of kidnapping of bosses, and many strikes, and the big difference was that the communist party held 20% in the elections. The current situation in France is a period of crisis too and I thought it would be a way to talk about today at a distance and with it being a comedy it would help us look at the situation of today.

JW: The music in the film seems to be extremely important to you, why is this?

FO: I asked the composer to listen to the music of the era and look at the instruments of the period to have its spirit, and to use the songs that were the hits of the period. This gives it the spirit of the seventies and for me it gives distance. For instance at the end when she is singing, it is ridiculous, but actually a politician and an artist do the same work, you have to touch people so I think it was useful for the film. I asked myself whether I should do a musical with this film, but I had a feeling that because it deals with the emancipation of the character who deals with a reality we face at the moment it would be better not to do a musical of the story.

JW: There are some similarities between the musical 8 Women (2002) and your latest work Potiche

FO: Yes, but in 8 Women I assumed that it was theatrical. Where as with Potiche I accepted it is theatrical at the beginning but after the emancipation of the character we follow her outside of the house discovering the factory and the flat of Babin, these are different locations that don’t exist in the play and for me it was very important that the character Suzanne make her discoveries the world around her.

JW: How much did you add to the film that wasn’t in the play, elements such as subplots?

FO: I had to develop all the characters around Suzanne Pujol, especially Joëlle and I added a third act to the play. The play ends with Robert Pujol’s return and he discovers she is the boss and that is the end, and for me this was not enough. So I had the idea of another humiliation when Pujol regains control of the factory, from this new humiliation of Pujol she finds the strength to enter into politics.

JW: What was it like being reunited with Catherine?

FO: It was a great pleasure. It was more difficult for her in 8 Women where she was one among eight actresses, but in the case of this film she was very much involved in it from the start. I think she was happy about this, as she is grounded actress, a grounded woman, and in the part of Suzanne Pujol she was able to show this side of her personality, she was able to show her tenderness.

JW: And what was your experience of working with Gérard Depardieu?

FO: It was such a dream as he is such a genius as an actor. For me it was a lot of fun because he is such a big thing. When he arrives on set he is such a big energy, there was such a magical chemistry between him and Catherine. It was amazing to see them together, when you have seen them very young together and then you see them again together this amazing iconic couple. Gerard has done so many films he sometimes gets board with cinema, he has done so much, I think though he was very happy to work on this film and that he was very happy to work with Catherine because he loves her. He was happy to make a film about politics as he knows politics very well, you know he is a very good friend of Fidel Castro, and of many communists, so I think he a lot of fun.

JW: There are some very strong social and political aspects to the film, I wondered how much of you own views are reflected in the film?

FO: I am with the character of Suzanne Pujol, but you know I am quite ironic, for instance at the end when she is saying she wants to become the peoples mother, I think that is her logic, she tries to do her best. I think when you are a woman you have to use your weapons, and the fact she is a mother she wants to use that as a politician. But I realised it was a feminist movie when I saw the response of many women, the success of the film in France is because if it a couple is deciding to see a film it is often the woman who decides what to see.

JW: Often you films focus on sexuality or sexual ambiguity and I wondered how you feel this is represented in Potiche, for instance David, at the end of the film it is ambiguous. Do you feel this film strongly explores sexual identity?

FO: Yes, because it is political, even Suzanne Pujol you have the sense that she has a strict feeling about sexuality and you discover she has a past like any other women, like many French bourgeoisie, perhaps by the end of the film she decides to put aside her sexuality to have the power. It is very different for men and women, for a male politician and a female politician, men often have strong sexual identities, woman do not have this luxury. I mean look at Margret Thatcher, what happened to her sexuality and then look at Berlusconi.

JW: Do you try and direct your films to a particular audience?

FO: No, no, I think if you work to an audience you don’t work well. You have to be very selfish, think to yourself would I like to see the film I am making, be honest with yourself. Of course you never no but it helps that I keep very close to the production. It is easier for a film like Potiche to have a wide audience compared to Le Refuge (2009) that is more difficult and dramatic, I am aware of this but you never know how it will work. I am surprised by how many women loved Potiche, and with 8 Women how many children, young girls, I suppose they love the film because it is a film about dolls. I didn’t have that in mind when I made the film.

JW: You have been quoted saying that there is a large part of yourself that goes into you’re films, what part of yourself went into Potiche?

FO: We have all been a potiche in our life, sometimes I feel like a potiche, we are all sometimes there just for decoration and feel like we don’t really exist. I think this is a universal feeling to feel like a potiche.

JW: You have always looked at female identity, this one more than ever, where does this come from?

FO: I think it comes from my mother. My mother married very young and had four children in five years. After having the children she decided to study and become a teacher, this was a very strong thing to do during the seventies. She is my role model, she was ready to fight, she did her job as a mother and afterwards she said now I want to work and have a job; so she studied and became a teacher. Today it is very different, but in the seventies this was a really strong thing for a women to do. Maybe I am a feminist, despite myself.

JW: The film also deals with concepts of the dysfunctional family? You seem really interested in this area.

FO: You know it is funny, the family is at the heart of society, you have the boss, the father, the trophy wife etc. It is a good way to talk about society. What I like is that at the beginning of the film the idea of the classic bourgeois family but as soon as you see behind the mask you realise that it is very dysfunctional and the place of each one is always changing. For example the relationship between the mother, Suzanne, and the daughter Joëlle, everyone is changing, there is emancipation for some, stagnation for others, it moves for everybody.

JW: You often play with melodrama, what is it about melodrama that attracts you?

FO: I know that in English this term is very negative where as in France it is not. All the sentimental scenes are really important, the scenes between Suzanne and Babin are poignant scenes, by asking the question of whether after all those years it is possible to start a new life and I thought it was quite touching. You need to mix comedy with moments of sentimentality and melodrama. For a successful comedy you need some realism and this means that sometimes you have you be totally involved with the characters.

JW: Also there has been a large gay audience to these films?

FO: Yes, yes, I am more used to that. The gays love strong women!

And it was on that defiant note we concluded the interview.

Potiche opens this weekend and is sure to be a box office smash, please check out my review for more details on what I made of Ozon’s latest work.

Joe Walsh

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