Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Word of Explanation

Qu'est-ce que c'est, la potiche?

It all begins with François Ozon. He is the real reason we came to France. We love three of his films, Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes (Water Drops on Burning Rocks), 8 Femmes (8 Women), and Potiche (hey!). We are kind of "Ehhh" about Swimming Pool but look forward to seeing the other films. Ozon's work has all kinds of queerness and feminism and awesome technicolor set designs and more Douglas Sirk, Jacques Demy, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder references than Rock Hudson could shake his manly fists at, but sometimes there are things, little touches, that we can't resolve as misogyny or fetishism or cattiness or humor or all of those things at once, so that we're kept on our toes. When we have an apartment of our own, we will have a room decorated entirely in İznik tiles and a room that looks like the Nouvelle Vague, the Nouvelle Nouvelle Vague, and the Neuer Deutscher Film all wallpapered together IN VELVET.

Which brings us to Potiche. What exactly is a potiche, you ask? It is, in the first place, the 2010 film starring Catherine Deneuve. In the second place, it means "trophy wife." Deneuve plays the meek wife of an umbrella factory owner who takes charge of the works after her mean, philandering husband's heart attack; the film asks not only what is the role of the trophy wife, but also what she's supposed to do with herself when she no longer plays a decorative role in her husband's affections or status-seeking.

The film does some very charming things with gender and labor and politics. It's also a highlight, and a skew, of Deneuve's transition into playing dignified, sexless, matriarchal supporting roles. I think that there are times when she seems to show traces of discomfort, even bewilderment, that is not entirely confined to the roles themselves, as though she too is wondering, "How did I, Belle de Jour, the Mississippi Mermaid, Peau d'Âne, always the gorgeous lead little more than a decade ago, get typecast this way for the new millennium?" Ten years ago, when hers was the face of Chanel No. 5, she might have thought it would be a fun experiment to allow Lars von Trier to cast her as Kathy, Bjork's sidekick at the stainless steel sink-making factory, and had no idea that she was letting herself in for another decade of sexless supporting roles. Or maybe she was sick of being typecast as beautiful and seductive? Or thought it would be funny? Or thought that it was the only thing for an actress of her age to do, to keep working? Or she wanted to invest those roles with variety and great acting and wanted a new challenge? Or maybe it was a relief?

There is a similar mystery in watching Lauren Bacall play Ma Ginger in Dogville. "Don't give me any of your lip, Thomas Edison Jr.: I'LL HOE AS I DARN WELL PLEASE." Lars wrote that line because he's a sadist. But it's also an incredibly amusing line, and it's more interesting to speculate on what Bacall herself might have been thinking as she hoed her gooseberries. Similarly, we can suppose that Deneuve has all these thoughts, or none of them, or something else entirely. All we can do is sit around obsessively watching the quirks of her expressive mouth and wondering just how much irony she's investing in her performances--or watch films like Potiche, which seem to comment on and critique not just WOMEN and WORK and the PLIGHT OF AGING WOMEN ACTORS, but also Deneuve's career in particular.

So. In case anybody is wondering, the title of our blog is my idea. Karl wouldn't have gone anywhere near it, if I hadn't insisted. I like that it's funny and also very uncomfortable. There is nothing terribly amusing about calling oneself La Romancière (The Novelist), though there is some value in claiming the name itself. La Potiche, on the other hand, carries with it so much ambivalence and provocation; there's no way you can talk about the word without discussing misogyny, money, and power, and no way you can disclaim it, without having to say something positive about women's unpaid domestic labor and so forth. All this stuff is present in my mind every time I sit down to write, but more often when I'm sitting down to not write--but in a funny way! Like Catherine Deneuve, I am profoundly ambivalent about the roles I've chosen. Like Catherine Deneuve, I often think back on that time that I was the allegorical figure representing la République Française, and wonder, WHA HAPPENED?

The idea of La Potiche is my bugbear, my memento mori, and also, not unproblematically, a comfort, because there is nothing technically wrong with being one--that I must admit as both a feminist and a pragmatist. When I reckon the possibility that I will never write a sellable novel, and my dedicated, hardworking agent will never get paid, I comfort myself with the fact that Le Prof wakes up every morning with a big old grin on his face, to realize once more that he has won the competition and I AM THE PRIZE, and even if I did cook a completely inedible egg and rice soup for yesterday's lunch, he was still grinning with joy as he dumped the leftovers in the toilet. Seeing that grin, I sat down to write some more, because I, La Potiche, am une artiste tragi-comédienne, and if there's something rather misogynist or fetishistic or catty about all this, it's keeping me on my toes.

Which brings me back to the Republic of France! We came away to Paris not just for le fromage, but also to get uncomfortable with language and culture and how we fit into the place where we're living, which is to say, who we are. That discomfort is meant to stimulate our work, our imaginations and criticisms and readings, so that we write, not about Paris, but because we've been provoked and shaken up by Paris. Or at least that's what we're telling ourselves this morning, because the dryer takes 6 hours to dry the socks, and the sink pipe dripped all over the floor, and the microwave fell off its stand, and last night's Fête aux Cris lasted till 3 A.M. (they really did scream till 3 A.M. Screamed. Really. Repeated high-pitched whoops and screams, as they danced to le techno). But, undaunted, we are eating oatmeal and drinking our second pot of coffee and coughing, and, around brunchtime, going forth again, Le Prof et La Potiche, to hoe as we darn well please.

Postscript: Une potiche is also a kind of ceramic vase, like the one adorning the sidebar on our blog. And holy moly, but Le Prof is a big fan of ceramics, certain ceramics. More on that in a later post.


  1. Thank you, La Potiche, for your words of explanation, because I will admit to being very uncomfortable with the blog title.

    Knowing Le Prof's fetish for ceramics did not help, knowing the strangeness of having trophy wife appended to Le Prof made me wonder what kind of obscure game is at play -- and knowing the two of you and *still* not being able to quite sort out what you were aiming for in your disconcerting title made it all seem like a joke or metaphor or at least a reference that I was not privy to. Which is to say: the two of you are too clever for your own good, too smart and too playful, and if ever two people have been cosmically fated to dwell together it is Le Prof et La Potiche.

    And now I must suddenly believe in God. Damn you and this blog.

  2. There could be worse gods ... and Potiche is a wonderful film, one of the better films I've seen in the past five years.—@moselmensch

  3. Daniel: it is a marvel, isn't it? The uh SPOILER ******* musical finale blew us away.

    Jeffrey--we just had a conversation here about your comment.
    A: "Is the blog title in really bad taste? I hope Jeffrey's not too upset by it."
    K: "I think he'll be okay."
    A: "He's a sensitive soul."
    K: "He's a sensitive soul for all the right reasons."
    A: "Agreed."
    The problem with provocation, of course, is the risk of going too far.

  4. I'm so glad that I get to hear your thoughts even though you are far, far away.

  5. I think it is best to take the risk -- and thanks for thinking I might be sensitive, in a good way. I try!