Exclusive: Potiche Director François Ozon

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Since his first feature in 1997, François Ozon has proven himself to be one of the most eclectic and prolific filmmakers France has to offer with films that range from erotic thrillers like his hit Swimming Pool to musical comedies (8 Women), and lots of dramas and even a period piece.

Potiche (Trophy Wife), based on a play from the late ’70s, takes him back to the campier fare of 8 Women and reunites him with legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve, who plays Suzanne Pujul a typical “trophy housewife” whose husband is kidnapped during a labor dispute by the workers at his umbrella factory forcing Suzanne to step forward and take charge. Deneuve in turn is reunited with the leading man with whom she’s most been associated with, Gerard Depardieu, who plays the union leader and Suzanne’s former lover who still has a thing for her.

Potiche certainly is one of Ozon’s more mainstream films, which may be why it became such a huge hit in France second only to 8 Women, although one has to wonder whether those who are fans from his dramas and movies like Swimming Pool will be able to keep up with the film’s less serious tone.

ComingSoon.net spoke with Ozon about the movie a few weeks back and covered quite a bit of ground in terms of the dichotomy that is his career.

ComingSoon.net: This really feels like a follow-up to “8 Women” so were you already aware of this play when you were making that movie?
François Ozon:
Yes, I’ve known this play for a long time, but I needed time to know how to adapt it, because I wanted to make something very different from “8 Women.” I mean, less theatrical, because in “8 Women” I really accepted and kept the theatrical aspects of the film, because it was a story of women who were trapped in a house, so it could be theatrical, and because it was very artificial, but it was more a film about actresses, about the French cinema and the relationships between all these actresses. For “Potiche,” it was more a success story actually, and the story of the liberation of a women. I wanted to keep the theatrical side at the beginning, because she’s the image of the perfect housewife in the ’70s and step by step she escapes from this place at the beginning and we discover the world with her. The idea was to have a mis en scene very close to the character, to follow her, and to begin in the theatrical way and then to go somewhere else, somewhere more natural and realistic and to end the film like a documentary about Catherine Deneuve singing in front of people. It was the idea of the evolution of the character.

CS: First of all, this was a play from the ’70s set in the ’70s…
Ozon:
It was set in the ’80s actually, the early ’80s, it was ’81 I think.

CS: But was it always your intention to keep it in that same era?
Ozon:
I asked myself with the producer, “Do we put the story today or do we leave it during the ’70s or ’80s?” because I wanted to make it a comedy, I thought it would be better to leave it during the ’70s, because today it’s such a big crisis in France, unemployment and factories closing everywhere. I said, “But it won’t be a comedy if it’s today, it would be a drama, and I don’t want to do a drama.” For me, because the ’70s, it’s my childhood, it was a way to pay tribute to this period and to play with my memories of the ’70s. Actually, when I did some research about the political context during the ’70s, because I was just 7 or 8 at this time, I realized that it was very close to the situation of today. We have a lot of kidnapping of bosses, lots of unemployment, it was a big crisis…

CS: I never heard of a boss being kidnapped, so that’s a very common thing?
Ozon:
Yes, in France, it happens very often. (laughs)

CS: I think we should do it more often because maybe we can get better results in contract negotiations…
Ozon:
You should, and it works. Things change for the workers, so it was the period where we had a lot of kidnappings, because France was very political, more political than today during the ’70s. The Communist Party was more than 20% of the elections, so we had a real fight and it was the fight of women, of workers, of minorities, so it was interesting to put the story at this time.

CS: Frankly, I’m amazed that the French have a single word that represents a term for which we need two: “Trophy Wife.”
Ozon:
“Potiche,” yes. It’s very difficult to translate in each country, the word “potiche,” because the word “potiche” has a double meaning in French. That means a kind of vase that you put on a table, it’s just for decoration. (points to the vase on table) That could be a “potiche,” just for flowers. It’s not very usual, not very pretty, but it’s there. The second meaning is very mean to say that, to speak about a woman who is in the shadow of her husband, she’s just smiling and pretty. Barbara Bush is a perfect “potiche.” Hilary Clinton is absolutely not a “potiche” but you can say the word “potiche” for a man, too. When you say, “Oh, he’s a potiche,” it’s very mean to say that to someone. So “Trophy wife” is not exactly the word, but it is the best word we found, because a trophy wife is usually a young woman with an old man and Catherine is still beautiful but she’s not as young as a trophy wife.

CS: I have to say that I was in the elevator with Catherine earlier and I thought she looked amazing in the movie, but she looks even more beautiful in real life. I don’t know what she does to maintain those looks but she needs to bottle that secret…
Ozon:
(laughs) You’ll have to ask her. She’s alive, she’s alive, and she doesn’t have to be a diva. She’s well in life and in the reality of today and that’s why she’s so young.

CS: You’ve worked with her before but had you worked with Gerard before as well?
Ozon:
No, it’s the first time.

CS: And they had worked together just recently…
Ozon:
They did about eight films together.

CS: They hadn’t really worked together in some time and then they reunited for “Changing Times” a few years back, so who prompted them to do another movie together so soon after that? Was it your idea to have them both in this?
Ozon:
Yes, it was my idea, because you know when you’re looking for a love for Catherine Deneuve, it’s a cliché, it’s not very original. but Depardieu is the best choice because there is such a chemistry between them. For me, as a French cinephile, it’s like a dream to have this couple in front of me, because we discovered them together a long time ago when they were young in “The Last Metro” by Truffaut, and to see them again, together, is so touching. It’s very tender for the French, and they’re not so many examples of couples in cinema you see aging over time. Maybe in America, you had Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.

CS: That’s probably the most common example but these days, actors who want to have careers, as much as they like each other, if they do more than two or three movies together, people start saying, “Oh, them again” and even they start getting sub-conscious about doing another one. Was it hard to convince them to do another movie together?
Ozon:
No, Gerard was so happy to work again with Catherine and Catherine loves Gerard. There’s a lot of tenderness between them, they know each other for such a long time, and it’s like an old couple and for the story, it was good, because it’s a story of people who had a love story a long time ago, so I used their past in movies for my story. When you have such big stars, you don’t have a virgin idea then, they’re not virginal actors, so the best thing is to use this past.

CS: Is the original play fairly well-known or popular?
Ozon:
“Potiche”? It was very popular during the ’80s, but it was quite forgotten. But you know, the writers of the play are famous in America, too, because they wrote “Cactus Flower,” so they were very successful.

CS: Which was just remade by Adam Sandler into “Just Go With It”…
Ozon:
Yes, I saw that, but Pierre Barillet didn’t know. They didn’t give him money or anything, and he was quite shocked. It’s bad, no?

CS: Well, they did credit it as the source so someone must have gotten some money because they do mention it in the credits.
Ozon:
But the film was successful.

CS: Yeah, it did okay; Sandler always seems to have an audience. One thing I love about your movies is that you never make the same movie twice. There’s movies like “Ricky,” which I just loved and it’s one of my favorite movies you’ve made in the last couple years.
Ozon:
You’re the only one. (laughs)

CS: Not many people saw it because it was very low-key but it was recommended to me and it was such an amazing film, but every movie is different and you bounce between doing really stark realism and doing things like this, which is very theatrical and colorful…
Ozon:
Artificial.

CS: I’m curious if it’s hard to approach each film so differently or do you generally know right away which direction you want to take based on the material?
Ozon:
I don’t have a planned career. I don’t know what will be my next film, each time it’s a new experience, a new challenge, and as a cinephile, I love different kinds of movies, different kinds of cinema, so I try to do the same in my work, to go in different directions, and I don’t want to repeat myself. I think there are some links between my films, maybe not very visible for everybody but for me, each time… I would have loved to have been a director during the ’40s and ’50s in Hollywood, able to make a musical, a Western, a thriller, a family film. I like the change of genre.

CS: It seems like a lot of filmmakers these days are trying to do that, even better known filmmakers like the Coens, they are trying to do that, but it seems like you’re able to do it a lot more effortlessly than some of them.
Ozon:
I think in France it’s possible, but I realize for example when “Swimming Pool” was successful in America, all the American producers proposed me some remake of “Swimming Pool.” They didn’t see that I don’t always want to do the same thing, but in France, it’s possible. The thing that’s important is to be close to the production and you have to know that this film will be more risky and maybe less commercial than other ones, so that means you don’t have the same budget for “Potiche” than for “Hideaway” or for “Ricky.” Each film is different, so I think the important thing as a director for me is to know the price of things, and so I’m very involved in the production, too, of my films.

CS: When we see your movies here, they’re usually seven or eight months later, maybe longer, so it’s a different experience than when your movies open in France. These days, do you find it’s been hard to compete with Hollywood movies even there or do your movies get a fairly big releases there?
Ozon:
We never know what it will be. In France, (“Potiche”) was a big hit, but the sense of humor in France is not the same as here, and there are many jokes for French maybe you don’t get here and many things about the period of the ’70s the French know very well, people won’t know, so you don’t know. It’s funny because when you arrive in America, all the French films are equal, you know? The small low-budget (movies) or the big comedy, because it’s quite hard to find a distributor in America and be released, because we have the feeling that Americans are very conservative about foreign movies. They don’t like subtitles, we don’t dub films here, so it’s quite difficult. It’s easier in Europe, because in Germany, Spain, Italy for example, they dub the film, so it’s easier, but the American market, it’s very difficult to touch. You never know. “Swimming Pool” for example was a very low budget, it was a very small film about two women in a house in the countryside in France, one of them was very naked… maybe that’s why the film was so successful. But part of the film was English, but the film was more successful in America than in France for example, so you never know. It’s always a surprise.

CS: You talk about the connections between your movies and one of the common themes I’ve noticed–and “Potiche” really drives it home–is that you often make movies about women trying to liberate themselves.
Ozon:
Yes, yes. I like to show the evolution of a character. You take the character at the beginning of a film in a certain situation and at the end, she has changed or he has changed, and very often, it’s more interesting to show the journey of a woman, because I think when you see a woman on screen, you have more opportunity to feel emotions and it’s stronger than with a man, because with a man it’s always about action. With a woman, it’s more about inside and it’s what interests me in movies.

CS: “Time to Leave” was an exception.
Ozon:
And it was like an actress for me. Yes, absolutely, “Time to Leave” is my exception.

CS: You mentioned “Swimming Pool.” which was half in English and half in French, so have you toyed with doing more movies like that which might play better with American audiences.
Ozon:
It depends on the story. If I have a story with an English character or an American character I will do it in English, but I don’t have any plans like that. My film “Angel” which was in English, was not released in America, so you never know.

CS: Music Box Films who are releasing “Potiche” are fairly new but they’ve been one of the more successful companies with French and foreign films.
Ozon:
Yes, they do a very good job. They’re very involved in the release of the film.

CS: Have you toyed with re-releasing any of your old movies or doing any sort of box set for those who are just discovering your films now? A lot of your movies are still available but it feels like a good time that you have some sort of box set. Have you talked to anyone about doing that?
Ozon:
I’ve tried to follow the release of the film on DVDs, but the problem is that I’ve done many films and very often it’s not the same distributor, so it’s difficult to do a box with different distributors, and I can’t control everything. Even in France, it’s quite difficult, but I try to follow that a little bit.

CS: You’ve been very active in the last ten years with at least one movie a year–you may have had one year off and you did a short–but that must be hard because you’re also writing your own material which makes it harder.
Ozon:
I love to shoot, I love to shoot, and if I could, I would shoot every day like I would go to the office. I think the big work I realize, the difficult thing is to promote a film. I realize now as a director, you have to do the film and then after, you have to do about one year of promotion, and it’s too long. Especially when a film is successful like “Potiche,” so I’m dreaming of a big flop for my next film so I don’t have to promote it. (Laughs) No, but it’s good and it’s always interesting to see the directions in other countries, but I don’t think it was like this for directors before. They didn’t have to promote so much a film. Now it’s really part of the job and you need to do it, because if you don’t do it, the publicity is so expensive so the distributor asks you to do interviews and to sell the films.

CS: But that also must be hard because you’re writing your own material and it must be hard to get into the writing head when you have to come out to promote the movie.
Ozon:
No, it’s better to have in mind something else so that you keep your distance with what you do. Now “Potiche,” if it works or doesn’t work, I don’t care actually (laughs). I do the interviews because I already have in mind another film. I’m working on something else, so the page is turned, it’s old news. For me, it’s my way of working, because I know I have some friends who are directors who travel and they need to be very involved in the promotion, and they’re very shocked if it doesn’t work. I think the life of a film is very fragile and some films like “Ricky” was not very successful, but there are some people five years after, ten years after, who are touched by the film and that’s the most important thing.

CS: I love the film and I think there’s any movie of yours that could and should be remade into English, it would be that movie, because there’s something about the movie…
Ozon:
But it’s too disturbing I think for the American audience. It will become a Disney movie. (laughs)

CS: I didn’t think it was that disturbing. I thought it was a very high concept film that works on a lot of levels. Do you know when you’re going to be shooting your next movie?
Ozon:
Yes, yes, it will be a kind of thriller in a school between a teacher and his pupil, so it will be very different from “Potiche.”

CS: Maybe more in the vein of “Swimming Pool” then?
Ozon:
Yes, there is something to do with “Swimming Pool,” that’s true.

CS: I’m talking to Ludivine on Monday. Do you think you’ll work together again? You’ve done so many great films together.
Ozon:
We’ve done three films together and it was nice, but I think she needs to fly on her own wings and she’s doing a good job. She’s doing good things. Maybe we’ll work together when she’ll be very old.

CS: She has grown up and it might be interesting to see because she’s always been the young girl in your movies.
Ozon:
I love at the beginning of her career when she was really naïve and very young, now she’s a woman and something else.

CS: Going back to the amount of movies you’ve been making, what drives you to stay so busy? Making and promoting movies is hard work.
Ozon:
No, for me, it’s living. You really are living 100% of your life when you’re doing a movie, and I think life can be boring after shooting (a film), so I like to shoot even if I know you’re tired or it’s difficult, but there are always some magical moments. You’re really creating something so you have strong relationships with the crew, with the actors, with the technicians, and yes, you have the feeling like you’re on drugs doing two months or three months so it’s great.

CS: Are you able to use a lot of the same crews between your films because they are so different, how they look and everything.
Ozon:
Yes, but very often I work with the same technicians and the technicians like the change of universe and don’t like to repeat themselves either.

Potiche opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, March 25.