Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Recent French Cinema: On Jean Renoir, Woody Allen and Jews in the Garment Industry

Vincent Rottier and Christa Theret in Renoir

No matter the quality of French cinema, I always feel like their movies are pitched towards adults and, even at their most formulaic, attempt to get at an honest depiction of the world around them. Even when they fail to fully succeed as art, their movies almost always assume intelligence on the part of the filmgoer and usually offer something of value. Here are three recent French movies, running the gamut from art house to comedy, both character-based and geared towards broader humour.

Michel Bouquet as Pierre-Auguste Renoir
One of France’s greatest filmmakers, Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game, La Grande illusion) is given the bio-pic treatment in a World War One set drama where the young Renoir (Vincent Rottier), not yet a filmmaker, has retuned from battle, damaged both physically, with a permanent limp, and mentally, scarred by what he has seen and experienced in the trenches. He resumes his combative relationship with his crotchety elderly father, famed painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) and deals with his attraction to the strong minded and very young Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret), Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s comely model who eventually becomes a muse to the young director.

The concept of Renoir is certainly a promising one, but the movie is severely hampered by the blandness of Rottier’s performance in the lead. Not for a second is the actor able to suggest that Jean will eventually became, not just a great film director, but one of the finest filmmakers of all time. Rottier’s Renoir seems merely like a callow youth who doesn’t know what he wants to be – Renoir himself didn’t know either at the time but more significantly fails to impart any depth to his character so that one can imagine him eventually leaving an indelible mark on his country’s cultural face and future profession.

That’s too bad, as the movie does come to life whenever Boquet and Theret appear on screen. Bouquet’s elder Renoir is a stubborn and set in his ways soul unable to deal with the vicissitudes of old age or with the unpleasantness in his family’s emotional past, and he displays all the full powers of a genuine talent in his fading twilight. Theret is just the latest in the line of sensual French actresses who blend sensuality, intelligence and presence in a memorable way. (She is also frequently nude on screen, a reminder, as if one was necessary, that the French are so, refreshingly, matter of fact about casual nudity on screen.) While Rottier’s flat acting makes it difficult to believe that Andrée would fall for such a dull chap like Jean Renoir, Theret at least convinces you that her character would have been a lasting influence on the young man and his cinematic destiny and glory.

Director Gilles Bourdos (Disparus), who co-wrote the film with Jérome Tonnerre and Michel Spinosa, utilized the talents of a convicted art forger to re-create Pierre-Auguste’s pastoral works as he paints them on screen and suffuses the movie in a painterly glow, but he really doesn’t bring any real oomph to the movie’s dramatic confrontations. My favourite line in the film is the observation by Jean Renoir’s older brother Pierre (Laurent Poitrenaux), an actor in the theatre, that his younger sibling forgo making movies, as cinema is not something for the French but for the Americans, i.e. the lower classes. How wrong Pierre was about the art form and his brother but, ironically, just on the basis of this particular pallid and forgettable movie, he was not so far off the mark.

Alice Taglioni and Patrick Bruel in Paris-Manhattam
What at first starts out as an unimaginative Gallic riff on Woody Allen’s 1972 scripted film Play it Again, Sam wherein an imagined Bogie gives a hapless schlemiel played by Allen life lessons, actually turns out to be a clever and smartly written movie that both plays homage to Woody while creating its own unique protagonist in the process. She’s Alice Ovitz (Alice Taglioni), a thirty-year-old Jewish pharmacist who is obsessed with Woody Allen and, in fact, talks to an iconic poster of Woody that hangs on her bedroom wall. He talks back to her too, but the first hint that neither Alice nor the film are typical comedy fodder comes from the fact that most of Woody’s bon-mots that Alice absorbs are his serious statements on life and, further that her favourite Allen movie is not Annie Hall or Manhattan, as you’d expect but Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972). (Her idolization of the filmmaker makes perfect sense, as Woody is practically a cinematic god in France where his every movie is greeted with hosannas and/or deep interest.)

Otherwise, Alice’s experiences are typical for someone of her age and religion. She’s looking for Mr. Right and facing pressure from her parents and sister to settle down. She actually has a nice good looking boyfriend Vincent (Yannick Soulier), who’s about her own age and shares her cultural passions, but the spark isn’t really there. But then she meets the older, uncultured Victor (Patrick Bruel), who installs alarms for a living and has never even seen a Woody Allen movie, and something starts to happen. It’s a testament to Taglioni’s and Bruehl’s sweet chemistry that even if their budding relationship ends predictably – this is not a spoiler – you buy into them as a couple regardless of the obstacles, usually self-inflicted, that get in their way until the film’s conclusion.

Writer-director Sophie Lellouche, making her feature film debut here, has a nice touch with actors, who also include Michel Aumont and Marie-Christine Adam as Alice’s over protective parents, Marine Delterme as her workaholic sister Helen and Louis-Do de Lencquesaing as her brother-in-law Pierre. The whole family suspects Pierre of cheating on his wife, all except Alice who is a born romantic and doesn’t even consider that possibility until it’s pointed out to her. What’s really going on with Helen and Pierre is one of several family secrets that Alice uncovers during the course of the movie which essentially charts her self-actualization and route to genuine happiness. Fortunately the movie never sentimentalizes that journey nor does it get heavy handed about it either. It’s often quite funny, in fact, particularly when everyone breaks into Helen’s house, when she and Pierre are out, to try to ferret out evidence of Pierre’s supposed adultery. There are more than a few such good gags and witty scenes in this very short (78 minutes) movie, so much so that the Woody Allen tropes, which ultimately don’t work so well, are almost unnecessary in Paris-Manhattan, even though they do lead to a neat cameo by the man himself. (One oddity: when Victor buys his first Allen DVD and tells Alice it was something with 'sex' in the title, she immediately guesses (rightly) that it’s her personal favourite but she (or Lellouche) forget that there’s another Allen movie with the word 'sex' in the title, the eminently unmemorable A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982).)

The film’s point of course is that movies aren’t real life, but the joke in this film is that real life can turn out like a movie after all – complete with a happy ending. The difference between Allen’s work in the last 20 years or so and Lellouche’s film is that Paris-Manhattan has some substance and thought behind it, something that with the odd exception (such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the last part of Midnight in Paris) has pretty much vanished from the Allen canon. At least Lellouche has, in a way, restored some luster to his reputation with her loving homage

La vérité si je mens! 3 (Would I Lie to You? 3)
The cast of La vérité si je mens! 3
One of the fascinating aspects of French cinema is that the country’s funding bodies regularly give monies to filmmakers whose mandate is to reflect France’s largest minority groups, Arab, black and Jewish in particular. In the case of the Jewish community, that often leads to mass attendance at Jewish-themed movies in their first weekend of release, essentially ensuring that the movies open wide beyond Paris. In the case of the La vérité si je mens! films, the result was two massive hits, in 1997 and 2001 – enough so a third trip to the well has been undertaken, with director Thomas Gilou and screenwriter Gerard Bitton, who’s written or co-written all three movies on board as well. 

A decade or so later than the last movie, the gang of (mostly) Sephardic Jewish garment workers and owners are still up to their old tricks, juggling their women, their businesses and trying to stay one step ahead of their competitors. This time around Eddie (Richard Anconina), Dov (Vincent Elbaz), Patrick (Gilbert Melki), Yvan (Bruno Solo) and Serge (José Garcia)  – not all the actors have played these parts in all three films – square off against an especially nasty nemesis, do business with the Chinese and squabble amongst themselves even as the women in their lives shake their heads in frustration over their perpetually (excepting Dov) immature and childish partners.

It’s a likeable enough film, and offers nods to popular cinematic predecessors – like the immortal classic Louis de Funès 1973 French comedy Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob (The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob) – but except for one twist I didn’t see coming, it’s also a pretty lazy movie, with the protagonists, more types than fleshed out characters, doing little more than going through the motions. (Admittedly, the characterizations in all the movies was never that deep but at least the first film in the series had the benefit of freshness and some sharpness in a plot wherein Eddie, who is a gentile, pretends to be a Jew so as to get work in the (then) largely Jewish dominated garment industry in Paris.) Their performances here aren’t bad so much as uninspired.

What’s best about the movie is the generally realistic way the gang live their lives, from facing off against economic tribulations to their believably non-religious Jewish way of life. As in Paris-Manhattan, it’s mostly about adhering to traditions, such as Sabbath dinners and family celebrations, the way most secular Jews live in North America and Europe. Anti-Semitism, though it played a bit part in the earlier La vérité movies, is strangely absent here, odd at a time when it seems to be rampant in France. I suspect most filmmakers, Jewish or not, don’t want to touch the subject because then the elephant in the room, namely the fact that the hate mostly emanates from the Muslim community in France, would then have to be dealt with, too. But this is a light comedy, so expecting too much realism to intrude on the proceedings may be a tad unfair. (The audience whom I saw it with Toronto’s recent Cinefranco film festival certainly enjoyed it immensely.) I just wish, sequel or not, that Gilou and company had done more with the characters and storyline instead of offering up yet another tired sequel. In that regard, I expect more from the French then I would their sequel happy American counterparts. 

 Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute. He has just concluded his course, What Makes a Movie Great?.

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