Cinematic auteur Francis Ozon is one of Europe’s most prominent directors, best known for his brilliant use of melodrama and satirical wit in films like 8 Women and Swimming Pool. For his latest overseas hit, Potiche, Ozon joins forces with his 8 Women star, Catherine Deneuve, and oversees the most recent reunion of the iconic actress and Gerard Depardieu, another of France’s celluloid heavyweights. In Potiche, French slang for “trophy wife,” Deneuve is forced to take over her husband’s umbrella factory after a strike — and her hubby’s well-timed illness — leaves the plant crippled. With the film already a huge success abroad, we caught up with Ozon to discuss working with such a legendary cast, genre bending, and the difference between European and American cinema.
How did you go about choosing this project? It comes from a play which I discovered about ten years ago. I thought it was an amazing vehicle for an actress, and a beautiful part, but it took me time to know how to adapt it. The play was too old-fashioned and had nothing to do with the reality of today, especially in the case of women. Four years ago in France, we had the presidential elections and for the first time we had a man in front of a woman, and during this period I realized we had a comeback of male chauvinism, of misogyny, and I read the play again and thought maybe things didn’t change so much. So I worked on the adaptation with many links to today in France.
So even though the political climate was different, you were able to relate to it? Exactly, because it was important to have this political background for the story. So then I went to Catherine and asked if she would accept to be my Potiche, and she said yes.
How did you go about casting? It’s a kind of cliche when you have to cast the lover of Catherine Deneuve, but the first idea I had was Gerard Depardieu because they have done so many films together, and for me, as a cinephile director, it’s very touching to see these actors again together. We discovered them in The Last Metro by Truffaut, and they were very young and beautiful, and after all these years, they are still there, and it’s very tender to see them as a couple. There’s a magical chemistry between the two actors. It’s like seeing my parents.
A lot of films that take place in the 70s tend to be dark and gritty, but this is very bright. Why did you chose a bright aesthetic? You know, the ‘70s is my childhood, so I wanted to go back to this period in a very childish way. I wanted to be realistic, but I wanted it stylized a lot, so I decided to follow my memories about the ’70—the costumes, sets, music, and references like Judith Godrèche’s hair, which is the hair of Farrah Fawcett, because I saw Charlie’s Angels when I was a young boy. There was something about the film that still felt like a play. I wanted to mix genres in the film. I wanted to have a fast melodrama and a fast political side–to have different things. Because it’s something in life, and I know it’s sometimes disturbing for the audiences, especially in America, where we are more used to seeing something more straight. I think the people are clever enough to follow different directions at the same time, and life is like this. Sometimes you feel like you are in a Woody Allen film, and after you are in a drama of Bergman.
What do you think inspires you the most when you’re choosing a project? Each time is different. In the case of this film, it was the fact to work on a very likable character like Suzanne Pugol, and to work again with Catherine. And after 8 Women, we wanted to work again together, but I wanted her to be the real star of the film because in 8 Women, she was one among eight actresses. She followed all the steps of the production. I came by very often to her and told her, “I need to find you a lover, I need to find you a husband, I need to find you two children,” and she was giving me some advice. She was very involved in the project.
Do you think there’s a big difference in contemporary European cinema and what’s going on in American cinema? Yes, it’s a huge gap, it’s two different worlds. That doesn’t mean one is good and one is bad — I think there are some amazing films in America — but I have the feeling for an auteur, it’s easier to work in Europe. But at the same time, I realize a film like Black Swan is an auteur movie that became a blockbuster, so it’s possible to do that. In America, cinema is first an industry, but in Europe, it’s first an art, especially in France. There is this idea that if the film is good, if you have good reviews, it’s already a good thing.
Which I think is something we need more of here. Here people like success, which is good because we need success. I need success to make my films. I was very pleased that Potiche was a huge success in France, which means for my next movie, maybe it will be easier to make more difficult and less commercial movies.