Potiche (15)

An unglamorous Catherine Deneuve makes for sharp comedy.

Potiche (15)
dir: François Ozon

Like a glinting coin, spinning in mid-air, you never know which way François Ozon is going to fall. When you sit down to one of his films, will you be getting the highly stylised Ozon who has brought his taste for sauciness and perversity to the comedy of manners (Sitcom), the thriller (Criminal Lovers, Swimming Pool), the musical (8 Women) and the period piece (Angel)? Or will it be the more sombre alter ego who presides over intense emotional dramas (Under the Sand, 5x2, Time to Leave)?

It takes mere seconds to realise which camp his latest film, Potiche, falls into, "camp" being the operative word. With its 1970s factory-floor setting and battle-of-the-sexes theme, the picture may resemble for UK viewers a visually sumptuous version of Carry On at Your Convenience - one photographed in the palette of the pick'n'mix counter, peopled by grand icons of French cinema and suffused with progressive politics, with only the gratingly chirpy incidental music and stiff camera set-ups left intact for old times' sake. Alongside the gaily coloured opening titles, we see Suzanne Pujol, a housewife jogging at daybreak in curlers and a tracksuit of fire-engine red. I know what you're thinking. Housewife, curlers, tracksuit: it's got to be Catherine Deneuve, right?

Breaking apart a star's persona, only to build it back up again, is one of Ozon's specialities. In Potiche (which means "trophy wife"), he restores glamour and mystique to Deneuve, even as he appears to undermine such qualities. Casting against type can be a gag in itself and the camera need only frame Deneuve's regal beauty in close proximity to the quotidian for the comedy to flow.

Whether scribbling banal poetry in her notebook, dancing around the kitchen with a bowl of fruit or being casually disparaged by her ratty husband, Robert (the splendid Fabrice Luchini), Deneuve's star power is reinforced by each apparent denial of it. The final scene, in which hundreds of people are chanting "Maman!" at Suzanne, suggests strongly a fantasy vision of France's relationship with Deneuve.

Potiche is set in 1977, with all the excessively patterned knitwear and migraine-inducing wallpaper which that entails. Every dated detail, from Robert groping his secretary Nadège (Karin Viard) without fear of a lawsuit, to the underfloor lighting of the disco where Suzanne and her old flame Maurice (Gérard Depardieu) boogie tentatively, is heightened for our nostalgia and/or gentle mockery. But an underlying thoughtfulness emerges in the film as reality breaks into Suzanne's stunted life, like the sun cutting through the mist on her morning run.

When Robert has a heart attack, Suzanne volunteers to help break the deadlock with the striking workers at his umbrella factory. The film takes a sly delight in showing her negotiating with gargoyle-faced union leaders next to whom Bob Crow could pass for a L'Uomo Vogue cover star.She is flexible where Robert was stubborn and her breakthroughs have a ripple effect.

Her son, Laurent (Jérémie Rénier), comes out by degrees, his sexuality expressed exclusively through costume and body language, and jazzes up the family business. Nadège is inspired to be more assertive by the example of Suzanne, with whose husband she happens to be sleeping.

Like Quentin Tarantino, Ozon has always been a director whose films risk drowning in cinephilia. (Potiche even contains allusions within allusions, such as the elegant deer glimpsed in the first scene - a nod to Ozon's own 8 Women, where its appearance was, in turn, a reference to Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows.)

But casting Deneuve allows him to access helpful memories of her past roles: Belle de Jour, in which she played another overlooked wife; The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, where her mother, not her husband, was in umbrellas; and The Last Metro, the first of her six collaborations with Depardieu.

That softly defiant actor was always a colossal presence; now that he is literally a colossus, directors are finding interesting new ways to use his bulk. I will treasure for some time the shot of Depardieu in a car so small that he appears not to be driving it so much as wearing it.

Unlike the recent British film Made in Dagenham, which was superficially similar, Potiche has a sense of fun that doesn't neutralise its points about social revolution. Ozon has made an authentic romp with an underlying prickliness: it is candyfloss laced with barbed wire.

“Potiche" is released on 17 June

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit