John Lichfield: 'Potiche', a pastiche of modern France

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Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal are married and running a small factory in France. That is not the first line of a French shaggy-dog story. It is the bizarre sub-text of a new French movie, Potiche, which opened last week.

One of the leading actors , the very funny Fabrice Luchini, plays a tyrannical but hopeless factory boss dealing with a bad-tempered strike. His body language – boyish, compulsive, vain, cocksure, insecure – is an unashamed parody of the President of the Republic.

His wife is an apparent dumb blonde (“potiche” means flower vase or, figuratively, a female air-head) who is obliged to take over the business. She is played, beautifully, by the Grande Dame of the French cinema, Catherine Deneuve.

In a recent interview, Ms Deneuve, 67, said that she had based her performance on Ségolène Royal, the unsuccessful Socialist candidate in the 2007 presidential election. The actress was one of many celeb supporters of Ms Royal. She admitted, however, that she had been underwhelmed by her favourite’s public appearances.

“It was as if she was not a female politician but an actress playing a female politician,” she said. So, to play the apparently ineffectual Suzanne in Potiche, Ms Deneuve, the actress, copied a politician copying an actress copying a politician. She gives one of her best performances for years.

The third big role in the movie is that of a plump, long-haired, autocratic Communist mayor, who is in love with Suzanne. He is played by the other great “monstre sacré” (literally sacred monster or superstar) of the French cinema, Gérard Depardieu.

It once seemed that Mr Depardieu, 61, appeared, ex officio, in every French film. He has been a little more selective recently. It is, all the same, surprising to learn that this is just the second time in 22 years that the two best-known stars of contemporary French cinema have appeared in a film together.

Mr Depardieu is also very funny in Potiche. He adds to a strange feeling that the film, directed by Francois(cedilla) Ozon, is an allegory on last month’s news. With his long hair and ill-fitting suit, Mr Depardieu closely resembles Bernard Thibault, the head of the once Communist-aligned trades union federation, the CGT, who led the protests against Mr Sarkozy’s pension reform this autumn.

Is the film – partly about crisis and how to deal with it; mostly about the hopelessness of men – meant to be an allegory? Not exactly. It was made long before the pension strikes and marches. It is based on a play which was a great success in Paris in the early 1980s.

When I first saw the publicity material, I thought that there was something familiar and satisfying about the orange clothes with their wide lapels. I didn’t click, at first, that the action was set in the late 1970s, when I had lived in Paris myself. Maybe that proves, as some have suggested, that I am stuck in a 1970s time-warp.

The film’s director, Mr Ozon, may not have intended to make a political movie but he should be given the credit for extraordinary prescience. Where the vain, tyrannical, driven, Sarko-like husband fails, the calm, scatty, stubborn Suzanne (Deneuve) succeeds. Potiche is mostly meant to be a feminist comedy; events have made it into a shrewd, contemporary political commentary.

A lesson in the lingo of France’s “yoof”

Who said that French was a dying language? Young people’s French is as fluid and as inventive as young people’s English. It is, of course, heavily influenced by internet and pop-music English and by the reversing slang, or verlan, of the multi-racial banlieues.

When I lived in Paris in the orange-haunted, broad-lapelled 1970s, the most familiar slang words to express approval were “extra” and “chouette” (which literally meant “female owl” or “little cabbage”).

Young French people, I am reliably informed, now declare that that those rare things that meet their approval are “ouf” or “space” or “nice” or “exday”. “Ouf” comes from the exclamation “Ouf!” (or in “Beano English” “oof”). A film that you enjoyed would be “tellement ouf” (so oof).

“Exday” is a verbalisation of the capital letters “XD” which are, in turn, a development of the text-message symbol for happiness “:)”.

This verbalisation of text symbols is “très” modern French. The tag LOL (for laugh out loud) came into the French language a couple of years ago. Young English people, as far as I know, don’t say “lol” in speech. Young French people do.

Or rather they did. The word is now regarded as “ringard” (fuddy-duddy) but still exists in verb form. If you have had a few laughs with your mates you might say: “J’ai bien lolè hier soir”.

French homework: conjugate the imperfect subjunctive of the verb “loler”.

What an old rocker makes of Paris

I have sometimes recounted the merciless “neighbour wars” that rage behind the dignified facades of Parisian apartment blocks.

Here is an elderly Englishman’s story, as told to the newspaper Libération this weekend.

“The husband of my concierge was a taxi driver. He lived just above me and, of course, I make a lot of noise in my flat. I play music. One day, he went crazy and demolished my door with an axe. I didn’t do much. I just had the door rebuilt, with reinforced steel. And then I turned the music up loud again. He came back but this time it was the door that demolished him. (Laughter).”

The elderly Englishman in question is Keith Richards, 66, lead guitarist of The Rolling Stones, who spends much of his life quietly – or not so quietly – in Paris. “I’ve practically ended up becoming a Parisian,” he said.

It sounds like it.

j.lichfield@independent.co.uk

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