Shelf Life

It took two days to purchase tickets online for a screening of Potiche, the smash hit in France starring Catherine Deneuve that kicked off the 2011 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York City. The people lined up outside the theater to buy what tickets remained looked unruly, as if they were about to storm the elegant old Paris Theater and demolish all its lovely history. Marlene Dietrich cut the opening ribbon for the Manhattan movie house in 1948, but try telling that to a Francophile hungry for a chance to see Catherine Deneuve in person.

Can air be elegant? Yes, if you are sharing it with Catherine Deneuve. The actress glided onto the stage to say a few shy words as the audience went wild. Dressed in a black suit, her signature blond tresses tumbling to her shoulders, the actress looked startlingly like herself. She said she hoped we would like the film.

It was explained that a potiche was a trophy wife and since the dictionary defines the word as a porcelain vase or a person without any real power, I wondered whether that was really accurate as the film began to roll. Deneuve, her pretty hair wrapped around curlers or dressed in a shade of beige that would have deadened the skin of any other mere mortal, is initially neither. Her husband barely trots her out for others to admire (isn’t that the point of having a trophy wife?) and when she does acquire power after a series of nutty plot twists, it is in spite of her husband’s machinations, not because of them.

Deneuve’s sweetly despotic husband eventually runs afoul of his factory workers to suffer a histrionic and very comic heart attack. The leading lady steps into his shoes wearing a pretty pink dress, short mink jacket, and jewelry sure to enrage angry strikers in her husband’s umbrella factory. When she is upbraided for this costume, her rejoinder is that she is dressed to honorer les autres.

Dressing to honor others, what a crazy, genteel concept. The expression took me away from the film as I remembered a solo trip to Paris. I tried my best to affect M.F.K. Fisher’s steely pleasure in solitary dining, until another lone woman sat next to me in the restaurant. She was splendidly dressed and I complimented her suit, hoping she wouldn’t think I was rude. She decoded the fine cut and cloth with the same phrase, je veux honorer les autres. She invited me to her hotel in the 6eme arrondissement for an after-dinner drink, we were fast friends for a night, and then I lost her card.


Ton avis, quel avis, tu as un avis?” “Mais Robert…” is all Madame Pujol has time to say before her darling husband requests that she share his thoughts and “shut up a little.” In other words — Madame Pujol’s own —  that she be part of the decor. Faire partie du décor or being up on a shelf (another phrase in the movie’s subtitles) is essentially what a potiche is. To rank as trophy wife requires more. Both are figureheads, but only high-class potiches get to be shown off. Plain-looking ones stay up on their shelves.

Another, less acknowledged fact about potiches was called attention to shortly after the release of the movie, with a regal Deneuve posing en bonne compagnie for the cover of the gay magazine Têtu.

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Male potiches, welcome aboard! Monsieur Pujol has already made the move — although, as revealed in the closing scene, he prefers sofas to shelves. What the movie does not tell however is whether he switched his aftershave to Potiche, the new fragrance for women and men. Launched in 2011 by Italian perfumer Enrico Buccella, the unisex scent is “dedicated to the small things in life which may not appear very important but would be sorely missed if they were not there.”


Valérie Trierweiler, one of France’s loudest anti-potiches, boldly revived the sexist connotation of the word when asked about her role as first lady days after François Hollande won the presidential race in May 2012. Dressing to honor others is fine but not enough. “I want to represent France, smile and be well dressed,” she says in an interview with The Times, “but my role must not stop there.” Potiche, a word invented during the May 1968 protests in France, summed up women’s “enough is enough” feeling about being stuck at home with the kids. They demanded the right to work double shifts and to not have to choose between being mothers and employees. Trierweiler takes on even more responsibilities as she keeps working as a Paris Match journalist while raising three children from a second marriage and moving into the Élysée Palace and the political arena. There sure is no fear to have about “decorative nonentity.” According to recent polls, two thirds of the French disapprove of her headstrong decisions and feisty behavior. She may never, as she enjoys saying, have worn dresses by grands couturiers, but she has been publicly wearing the pants since her very first appearance at the satirical puppet show Les Guignols de lInfo.

The gentle Madame Pujol and her subdued ways into power may be an inspiration.

— Claire

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