Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cinéfranco 2011: French comedies run the gamut of quality

The 14th edition of Toronto's Cinéfranco film festival recently ended, offering, as per its mandate, a glimpse into the commercial reaches of French language cinema, showcasing mostly movies from France, of course, but also from Switzerland, Belgium, Morocco and the French-Canadian province of Quebec. That commercial emphasis is deliberate on the part of the festival's founder and executive director Marcelle Lean, who recognized that French genre pictures are usually shortchanged at the Toronto International Film Festival and in regular release, which tend to the art house end of things. That does present something of a qualitative problem with Cinéfranco in that the best films from France are usually art house movies, like Summer Hours (L'Heure d'été) and A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël) , and not the country’s genre pictures.

That said, some art house movies that shade into accessible psychological thrillers, such as Fred, La moustache, Le petit lieutenant and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon cœur s'est arrêté), have played Cinéfranco in the past demonstrating that even within the confines of Gallic genre pics, quality can be found. The festival’s comedies this year ran the gamut from quality to crap, but almost all of them displayed enough thought and intelligence to make them worthy of your time.

Michel Aumont, Karin Viard in Les invités de mon père
Quality first. Les invités de mon père  (My Father’s Guests) is a smart comedy/drama about a family patriarch, 80-year-old Lucien Paumelle (Michel Aumont), a retired doctor who invites Tatiana (Veronica Novak), an East European woman, and her daughter, Sorina (Emma Siniavski) – both undocumented aliens – to live platonically with him. He immediately falls in love with Tatania and marries her. When he springs the news on his two children, successful lawyer Arnaud (Fabrice Luchini) and less successful general practitioner Babette (Karin Viard), his startling revelation throws them into a tizzy and forces them to examine unresolved hurts and slights regarding their father and their own sibling relationship.

Director Anne Le Ny, who co- wrote the film with Luc Beraud, has fashioned a savvy movie about what happens when someone's life decisions impact upon others in ways that are unexpected and poignant. The characters in the film are never sheer villains even when they misbehave out of anger, ignorance, envy or even lust. That includes even the hard bitten Tatiana, who having grown up under communism, has become something of a user, but she’s also still a mother trying to do best by her child. Along the way, the film comments intelligently on the contradictory French attitudes towards immigrants, which differs by generation, and in the complex father-son sparring between Lucien and Arnaud asks whether in fact Arnaud should apologize for being rich because he didn’t devote his life to the public good as his father did. Luchini’s performance is especially acute, a decent man who has spent his whole life alternately rebelling against and seeking approval from his judgemental father. But Aumont’s Lucien is given his due, too, rightfully wishing to have a final fling at his advanced age even if as he realizes that his new relationship cannot and is likely not going to last. Viard’s Babette undergoes the most changes in the movie, as reacting to her father’s incautious act, throws her own traditional caution to the winds and acts out in heretofore flamboyant ways. Her instinctual distrust of and jealousy of the sensual Tatania, who is given to tight jeans and heavy makeup, is tellingly contrasted with that of Arnaud who is quite attracted to the family interloper – and she knows it – despite his strong dislike of her, as well. Leading up to a dramatic conclusion which quietly shakes up Lucien and Arnaud's parameters, Les invités de mon père touchingly makes its lasting mark. 

Nathalie Baye, Pierre Arditi in Ensemble c'est trop
Ensemble c’est trop (Together is Too Much), which is directed and written by Léa Fazer – one of a new crop of female filmmakers from France – also touches on family dramatics, revolving around long time married couple Marie-France (Nathalie Baye) and Henri (Pierre Arditi). When a pair of panties accidentally falls out of Henri’s pocket, during a family birthday party no less, Marie-France immediately assumes the worst despite Henri's lame protestations of innocence. She’s right, of course, and when Pierre admits to not only having a mistress, who is his son’s age, but impregnating her, too, he’s unceremoniously tossed out of the marriage by his wife. Marie-France, in turn, goes to live with her son, nervous Sébastien (Jocelyn Quivrin) and his wife Clémentine (Aïssa Maïga) but her increasingly demanding, imperious and neurotic ways drive the pair to distraction. Meanwhile Henri, recognizing the folly of his ways, tries to win his wife back even though a new suitor for her affections has come onto the scene.

In the vein of the delightful Cousin, cousine, albeit a little thinner on the ground, Ensemble c’est trop makes the most of its humourous situations, bolstered by strong acting, in particular the always-luminous Baye (Le petit lieutenant), who reveals a deft comedic side not always on tap. And Arditi makes duplicity more entertaining than it has any right to be. The film does grow a bit wearisome after awhile – it’s just a little too enamoured of slapstick – but not too much so and ends on just the right realistic/caustic note. Unlike the Hollywood version, French happy endings are not necessarily reaffirmations of the status quo.

Isabelle Carré et Vincent Elbaz in Tellement proches
Tellement proches (So Happy Together) is another family-based comedy, but one that is considerably lighter in tone than Les invités de mon père and even Ensemble c’est trop. Set in 1993, it’s about perpetual man-child Alain (Vincent Elbaz) who isn’t really cut out for fatherhood, refusing to recognize that his seven year old son, Lucien (Max Clavelly), has behavioural issues and in general doing his best to avoid growing up and assume the role of adult.

Tellement proches, which is co-directed and co-written by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano,  begins promisingly as it contrasts Alain and wife Nathalie's (Isabelle Carre) mode of child rearing as compared to how her brother Jean-Pierre (François-Xavier Demaison) and his wife Catherine (Audrey Danna) raise their daughter (namely by pushing her into all manner of languages, instruments and skills and then subjecting visitors to her ‘shows’). Jean-Pierre and Catherine even enroll her in a Jewish school, though they’re not Jewish. Meanwhile, Nathalie's sister Roxane (Joséphine de Meaux), who is, shall we say, a little unhinged, manages to rope Bruno (Omar Sy), a doctor she’s just met, into posing as her boyfriend and then scares him off with her neediness. For his part, Bruno has to suffer the indignities of always being mistaken for a nurse or janitor since the French, in Tellement proches at least, can’t conceive of a doctor as being black.

The films’ early scenes – with the characters playing off each other, in mostly mutual dislike and containing set pieces which exaggerate (but only slightly) the pressures and annoyances of child rearing and maintaining relationships – are quite funny and inventive. But when the film turns more serious, with Nathalie tossing Alain out of the house, it loses steam. The transition from comedy to drama and back again doesn’t take. Even the Jewish humour, with Catherine getting carried away and practically turning Orthodox herself, is more condescending than funny since the family isn’t Jewish in the first place. (If either Catherine or Jean-Pierre had been portrayed as assimilated Jews suddenly ‘discovering’ their religion, it would have worked because there would have been a point to the comic barbs.) Tellement proches remains likable throughout and wraps things up nicely with a move to the present which utilizes Lucien’s childhood memories for an imaginative payoff. But by then, its comic impact has mostly fizzled. 

Gerard Depardieu in Mammuth
It’s hard to do proper justice in describing Mammuth, Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine’s decidedly off beat saga of Serge Pilardosse (Gérard Depardieu), a retired 6o-year-old slaughterhouse worker who, bored out of his mind and pushed by his nagging wife Catherine (Yolande Moreau), sets out on a motorbike quest to retrieve missing work documents so he can acquire his full pension. He meets some oddballs along the way and is forced to confront (sort of) the ghost of his old girlfriend (Isabelle Adjani), who died while riding behind him on a motorcycle. Partially a road movie, and partially a nod to the deadpan nature of early Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law), Mammuth, which is the name of Serge’s motorbike, is a cult hit in the making (at least it was received as such in Paris). Its various set pieces don’t quite cohere, though a scene where Serge and his cousin jerk each other off, the way they did in their youth, is uproariously matter of fact. But its conclusion, as Serge realizes that you can go home again, is strangely touching and the film hold’s one interest throughout.

One thing French cinema has been displaying of late, in comedy as well as in drama, is the country’s multicultural bent. Black and Arab characters are regularly popping up in their movies, even if it’s only as background, indicators that those two groups exist in France. Two Cinéfranco films featured Ramzy Bedia, a popular Arab comedian better known as Ramzy. Il reste du jambon? (Bacon on the Side?) actually reflects, to a degree, his own life as an Arab man married to a white woman, the film’s director Anne Depétrini. In the movie, which Depetrini wrote with Benjamin Guedj, the female role is played by Anne Marivin, as Justine, a TV producer who meets Djalil, an Arab doctor (Ramzy) and begins a relationship with him. Justine doesn’t care about Djalil’s background, but her parents and his mother do. With a nay-saying chorus of doubters regularly piping up, the couple tries to navigate the rocky shoals of interracial dating.

Ramzy Bedia, Anne Marivin in Il reste du jambon?
Ramzy has an easy charm about him, essaying a character that is somewhat akin to Sydney Poitier’s ‘perfect’ doctor in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? And Marivin’s Justine is equally appealing. But the movie short-shrifts most of the other characters, who remain superficial ciphers, and avoids the hard truths about prejudices, soft soaping Djalil’s patriarchal, controlling side and indulging in some political correctness by suddenly turning an angry Justine, after a fight with Djalil, into an unconvincing anti-Arab bigot. (Can’t the white character be non-racist just because the Arab one has a negative aspect?) Arab/Muslim relations with France’s dominant Christian group are generally more tense and fraught than is depicted in the movie. Il reste du jambon? is slighter than it ought to be.

Ramzy’s other movie at Cinéfranco, Halal police d'État (Halal Five-O) is decidedly worse. Though cleverly titled, it’s an utterly witless ‘comedy’ about an Algerian cop (Ramzy) and his sidekick (Eric Judor, the less funny half of popular comedy duo Eric and Ramzy) who are dispatched to France to help solve a series of murders of Muslim men and women. It’s all meant to evoke Peter Seller’s bumbling Inspector Clouseau with a dollop of Sacha Baron Cohen’s outrageous Borat thrown into the mix. But Halal police d’État, which was written by Eric and Ramzy and directed, badly, by Rachid Dhibou, fails to liven up the proceedings and says relatively little that is trenchant or pointed about Muslim-Christian relations in France. And while it points up the fallacy of stereotyping all Arabs/Muslims as terrorists or jihadists, it, contradictorily, indulges in a few gay stereotypes of its own. Something of a hit at home, the film will nevertheless strike most as juvenile and empty, and not at all funny. It was easily the dud at this year’s Cinéfranco.

The irredeemable Halal police d’État aside, the French comedies at the film festival, strong and weaker ones alike, generally presented an adult, honest and witty comic face. Mostly superior to the usual tired romantic comedies we regularly get out of Hollywood, they were also indicative of the wide depth and breadth of the country’s comedic cinema.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He will be teaching a course on science fiction in the movies and on television beginning in late April at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute

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