Acclaimed for his work in dark dramas such as Swimming Pool and Hideaway, with Potiche, Ozon ditches drugs and voyeurism for the lighter fare of farce, disco, and the chance to rekindle the romance between screen legends Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu begun in The Last Metro. The result is a colorful, almost Disney-like satire that melds misogyny and marriage with musical numbers in an umbrella factory. (Cherbourg anyone?)
Okay, the umbrella factory was in the original script, but for Ozon, it’s all part of the charm of cinema. I had the chance to sit down with the director at the Mercer Hotel to discuss his latest work, and uninhibited approach to film.
Tribeca: With Potiche, you enter into the realm of comedy, yet unexplored in past dramatic and psychological films of yours, such as Swimming Pool, and Hideaway. How did this switch alter your process?
Francois Ozon: It’s very strange. Each time it’s a new adventure and because I do a film a year I don’t want to repeat myself. Each time, I try to go in another direction, try something else, to have the feeling that it’s dangerous and it has to be a challenge. So after the last film I did, Hideaway, which was a drama, very sad, I wanted to make something funny, light, a comedy. And because I had known this play for a long time, I spoke with Catherine (Deneuve) and I asked her if she would be my potiche and she said yes, and we began to work on it.
Tribeca: So when did you first encounter the original play by Pierre Barillet?
Francois Ozon: The play was running in France during the '80s, and I didn’t see it at that time because I was too young. But there is a DVD version of the play, which I saw 8 years ago, and when I saw it I thought it was amazing and that it was an amazing part for an actress. But I had a feeling the story was too old-fashioned and it was about the '80s, it has nothing to do with the reality of today. And 4 years ago we had the elections with Nicholas Sarkozy in France, and for the first time in the presidential election we had a woman leading the race (Segolene Royal), and at this moment I realized there was a kind of comeback of male chauvinism and misogyny. I thought maybe things haven’t changed so much in 40 years. So I read the play again, and I now had the idea of how to adapt the play, to play on the fight between a man and a woman over power, and so it began like that.
Tribeca: I hear that originally you had been thinking of doing a film similar to the style of The Queen, regarding the French elections?
Francois Ozon: No, it wasn’t me actually. It was the producers who proposed I do a film about Nicholas Sarkozy, and I said, I’m sorry, but every day I see Sarkozy on TV and I don’t want to pay $10 to see him on screen. But I told them that I had another idea for a political film, so I proposed to them that we do Potiche.
Tribeca: What were your first reactions to the play?
Francois Ozon: I thought the part was amazing, but at the same time I did many adaptations to the script. You know the third act of the story, the fact that she goes into politics, was not in the play. The children didn’t really exist in the play, nor did the secretary, so I tried to develop all these kinds of things to make a real evolution for Suzanne.
I also played with many memories of my idea of the '70s, because I was a child then, so I had many memories about decorations, about hair, costumes, the music I heard when I was young. It’s a very French movie actually, about the spirit of the '70s in France and the political background too. The Parti Communiste was very important in France, as it was the beginning of female power in France, the feminist movement, so it was interesting to place the story at this time.
Tribeca: It was also interesting that you used female characters to represent both sides of the political spectrum.
Francois Ozon: Yes, exactly. There are three women in the film, and the funny thing is at the beginning the mother is supposed to be the potiche and at the end you realize that maybe it's the daughter, because the mother is less conservative than her daughter. She is able to find a place in society. She is able to fight and defend the power of women, and it was interesting for me to play with this cliché about women.
Tribeca: You seem to explore the role of women and particularly the internal journey of strong female characters in many of your films. Is it the characters that inspire you or the actresses themselves?
Francois Ozon: It’s the actresses and the female characters too. It’s the two things. But it’s strange because if I would do films about men, you wouldn’t ask me this question. That means people are still shocked that a director will make films about women. One side of humanity is woman, but people are surprised that I do films about them. But for me, it’s a pleasure to work with actresses. And because my films are, very often, about the evolution of a character, I think with a woman it's more interesting because she has to fight more than a man, because when a man is born he has everything for him, and for a woman she has to fight to get things.
So it’s more interesting, and I think very often the actresses are more clever than the actors, easier to work with and able to take risks. With Catherine, it’s a real dream, because she was very involved in the film. She loved the character of Suzanna Pujol, so we had a lot of fun working together.
Tribeca: Have you always been a big fan of hers?
Francois Ozon: Yes. I think she’s a great actress. She’s an amazing woman in life too. When you consider her whole career, she’s more than 60 years old and she began when she was 20, and she’s still working. She’s still so alive, and that’s great, because it’s not so easy for an actress to have such a long career. In America, after an actress is 40, it is often the end. But Catherine is able to do so, maybe because she mostly works in France, but also because she’s strong and she’s very curious. She’s able to work with young directors. She’s not afraid to take some risks in her career, and she’s amazing.
Tribeca: And it was really great to see her running an umbrella factory, somewhat of an homage to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Francois Ozon: Yes! But it was in the play, it was not my choice.
Tribeca: It’s funny though.
Francois Ozon: Yes it is funny. But you know, when you use a star like Catherine who did so many parts, she has a past for audiences. I used her history with Gerard Depardieu in the other films for my story. She’s not a virgin. You have to use all these other things actors and actresses bring to the table, and sometimes it can be helpful in telling your story.
Tribeca: So do you think casting Gerard and Catherine, knowing their past, added to the fun of the film?
Francois Ozon: It’s fun and it’s sentimental too. It’s tender, because we saw them young and beautiful when they were in The Last Metro by Truffaut, and now you see them when they’re 60 years old asking themselves, their characters: is it possible to have a love story now? So it’s touching, because it's always touching, I think, to see actors aging on screen. Much like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in America. It’s a legendary couple, and you use their past in movies to tell your story. When there is the flashback, everyone has the younger films they did together in mind. So it’s great.
Tribeca: Were there any directors or any films from the '70s that influenced you for this film, particularly in the way you shot Potiche?
Francois Ozon: The influences on this film are really some French comedies from the '70s. Not great directors, but films I saw and loved when I was a child, and I’m afraid if I try to see them again I won’t love them anymore [laughs]. So I tried to keep my childhood spirit when I did this film. For instance, I used some vintage ways of filming, like zooms and split screens, things I don’t do usually but did so in this case because of the history. I really wanted the audience to have the image of being in the '70s, to have the music, the colors, the costumes, all the things that make the spirit of this time in France. And the film is quite realistic. It’s stylized, of course, as we made many choices for it to be so, but it was truly a return to the past.
Tribeca: And the film did maintain a sense of realism while including several somewhat fantastical scenes, such as the opening scene of Suzanne going for a run in the woods in her bright red tracksuit and composing poetry as woodland creatures look on.
Francois Ozon: Yes. In certain ways, it’s almost like a Disney movie.
Potiche hits theaters this Friday, March 25. Visit Music Box Films for a complete list of theaters.
Watch the trailer: