Catherine Deneuve is one of the last people in the world you’d expect to be providing thought leadership for family businesses. The star of Bunel’s Belle de Jour and Polanski’s Repulsion is widely lauded as one of the world’s great beauties. Indeed such is the sense that she embodies all that is good about France her face was used to represent Marianne the symbol of the French nation.
Her latest film is the wildly successful Potiche, set in 1977 and dealing with the ups and downs of a rural French family enterprise that makes umbrellas. The factory was founded by her father a legendarily paternalistic patron of the old school who loved his workers so dearly that he gave them each a signed photo of himself and a pair of slippers when they retired.
Deneuve plays Suzanne who is married to the business’s new chief executive, the appalling and reactionary Robert Pujol who appears to love nothing more than getting into ugly face-offs with his belligerent workforce. Cheap Chinese umbrella imports are challenging their business model. There is talk about being forced to offshore the whole operation in Tunisia.
In true French style industrial relations under Mister Pujol reach such a low ebb that he is taken hostage inside the factory by his workers. Who comes to the rescue of her husband and the business but his wife, le potiche or trophy wife who normally sits around doing little more than being decorative. “I pay servants so my wife doesn’t have to work,” he barks, as she tries to get involved.
It’s a light-hearted affair introducing Gerard Depardieu as a Marxist mayor who once had a roll in the hay with Suzanne when they were far younger. (One waggish critic noted that Depardieu can only appear on the big screen these days as there’s too much of him to fit even on a widescreen TV) Potiche may be as camp as a row of pink tents but there are some interesting threads at its core.
The first is the assumption, common back in the dark disco days of 1977, that women would be utterly unable to get their little heads around anything commercial let alone run a family business such as that of an umbrella factory. Things have moved on but there’s certainly a serious tension in French business and public life these days.
On the one hand you have their equivalent of the Confederation of British Industry being run by a woman, Laurence Parisot who took a family business that had been run by her father and grandfather. On the other the grim facts surrounding the l’affaire Strauss-Khan
Without laying it on with a trowel the film shows how Suzanne’s higher levels of emotional intelligence when dealing with those around her – not only the immediate members of her family – but also the workforce are infinitely superior to old-style male approaches to leadership.
The Americans appear to be picking up on this. In 2007 when the MassMutual American Family Business Survey looked at the issue it found that 24% of family business were led by a woman chief executives which compared with just 10% in 2002. When one thinks of traditional images of family business it’s not always with associations with progressiveness. But gender diversity appears to be at better levels these days than in non-family concerns. That has to be a good thing. Why waste half your valuable offspring – assuming you get a 50/50 sex divide among your children – by ignoring the potential of the girls?
Potiche is worth seeing for a host of reasons not least, as a finely observed period piece, it’ll be the last opportunity you get to observe the great diva Deneuve jogging in the most revolting red nylon tracksuit you’ve ever set eyes on.