I never quite understand why some French films (and foreign-language films in general) get a UK release and some don’t. OK, there’s something of a star system in operation (though not necessarily the same one that works for French audiences – where Danny Boon, relatively unknown in the UK, is currently the highest paid French actor). I suppose we’re looking at actors such as Audrey Tautou, Marillon Cotillard, Kristin Scott Thomas, Romain Duris, Cécile De France, as well as those of an older generation such as Isabelle Huppert, Isabelle Adjani and Danielle Auteuil – not to mention veterans such as Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu. In most French films I see, even when I can’t name the actors I usually recognise someone, even if its from the recent TV series exported successfully to the UK, Engreneges (Spiral) or the more mundane stuff to be found on TV5 . With Poupoupidou, the only actor I recognized was the one who played the small part of a teenage delinquent, Dylan (Finnegan Oldfield) who tries to blackmail the lawyer Clément over an alleged sexual assault in Season 3 of Engrenages/Spiral and plays an equally small part here. It’s a pity that some interesting French films don’t make it across the Channel or even onto DVD for lack of familiar actors, even with films nominated for or even winning the Césars (French equivalent of the Oscars).
All the more interesting then that I happened on Poupoupidou when I was aimlessly checking out the foreign films on offer from Netflix – and not even the UK version but the US one. The DVD cover shown on Netflix – based on a famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe – clued me in and the English title, Nobody Else But You, wrapped it up. It was a reference to Marilyn Monroe’s song on Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. And indeed, the Monroe persona is at the centre of the film, a sort of MM reincarnation in rural France.
A few spoilers but not on the fundamental “whodunnit” question
David Rousseau (Jean-Paul Rouve) is a ‘polar’ (crime) novelist who arrives at Mouthe, the coldest town in France, on the border between the Jura region and Switzerland, on family business. Before he leaves he stumbles on a mysterious death – a young woman has been found dead in the snow with sleeping pills by her side. The dead woman is Candice Lecoeur (Sophie Quinton), a small-town beauty and minor celebrity, mainly due to her sexy and quirky news weather forecasts for the local TV station and erotic advertisements for a local brand of cheese. Her death is ruled as suicide although Rousseau realizes that no real investigation has taken place – partly because the crime scene is (conveniently) in a no-mans-land between France and Switzerland – and he thinks that investigating this case may end his writer’s block. The more he investigates, the more he is sure that there is something fishy going on. Candice (real name Martine Langevin just as Marilyn Monroe’s was Norma-Jean Baker) was a Monroe-obsessive and her life has parallels that of Monroe which helps Rouseau to get to the bottom of the mystery as well as providing him with the raw material for his most successful novel.
It’s enjoyable seeing the similarities with Monroe take shape. She, like Monroe, is blond (peroxide), beautiful and good-natured but also desperately depressed. And Candice’s love affairs shadow Monroe’s. Her ex-husband Gus (Lyes Salem) is an Italian winter sports champion who is devoted to her and also beats her up from time to time (cf. Joe DiMaggio). Next there is the ‘intellectual’, Simon Denner (Eric Ruf), book reviewer or the local paper (cf. Arthur Miller). By this time we’re cued for the arrival of a JFK character but we actually get a JFB (B rhymes with K in French), Jean-Francois Burdeau (Ken Samuels), and of course he is also a president, but the regional president of the area. And of course she sings “Happy Birthday Mr President” but in an even more provocative way than Marilyn’s famous birthday wishes for John F Kennedy. And JFB’s little brother (whose initials are BOB) comes to warn her that the affair is over. And so on.
Now the problem I had with the film, at least at first, is that of tone. From the above it points to comedy or spoof with the string of coincidences making Candice’s story seem superficial rather than something substantial. And there is a lot of cinephilic fun to be had. From the start, sly little intertexts such as the brand of the cheese she advertises is ‘Belle de Jura’, cf. Belle de Jour, Bunuel’s provocative 1967 film, about a young bourgeois housewife who spends her midweek afternoons as a prostitute while her husband is at work. The lead role is played by another iconic blonde, Catherine Deneuve, and in one of the weather forecasts Candice is dressed up in a donkey skin, surely a reference to another Deneuve film, Peau d’Ane, directed by Jacques Demy in 1967.
The Coen Brothers’ Fargo is another intertextual allusion, dealing with, as it does, with ear-flapped cops investigating a murder in a snowy terrain in a whimsical mood. And when Rousset goes home having written his most successful best seller, he has changed his pen name to Magnus Hørn, no doubt a reference to recently-successful ‘scandi-noir’ writers such as Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.
Right at the start of the film there is another clear intertextual allusion, to David Lynch’s television series, Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-91), particularly the similarity between Candice lying dead in the snow and the murdered Laura Palmer.
Now Twin-Peaks was one of the earliest examples of postmodern television, heavily laden with such ‘spot-the-reference’ diversion. However, I eventually tired of this and gave up on the show, as did many others, as a third season wasn’t commissioned. I no longer cared about who killed Laura Palmer. One of the problems of this relentless quoting and the barrier that it can put between audience and story is the failure to engage emotionally with the audience.
But, paradoxically, in Poupoupidou I actually found myself becoming more and more involved in the story and the characters and eventually found it quite poignant, just like the tragedy of the real Marilyn. There’s a melancholy in the deep structure of this film that helps anchor its sometimes-manic ingenuity.
Candice narrates her own story, as written in the diaries Rousset discovers as he frequently camps in her flat. The most recent (and ultimately incriminating) volume has gone missing. She seems to have continued writing the diary after her death, Sunset Boulevard style. Again I found this a little uncomfortable at first but eventually accepted as a valid way of telling the story.
Part of the attraction of the film for me were the performance of Rouve as a mopey sad sack of a character with a downbeat demeanor and sardonic sense of humour. Rousset is an archetypal character, the outsider who stirs up trouble and causes resentment from some of the locals. (And the ‘writer’s block’ plot device shows that the old ones are sometimes the best). Quinton’s small-town reincarnation of Marilyn lets us glimpse the parochial banality behind sex-kitten exterior and allows the film to considerthe advantages and disadvantages of fame.
And their relationship (even allowing for the fact that she is dead by the time he comes across her) is fascinating. He falls in love with her based on her diaries; dreams that she comes to his hotel room; and he is enchanted to discover it is in a sense ‘reciprocated’ – as he is leaving Mouthe receives a fan letter she sent before her death. (Or is this another intertextual allusion? To Otto Preminger’s Laura in which a character finds himself falling in love with a dead woman?)
And it looks pretty good, director Gerald Hustache-Mathieu and his cinematographer Pierre Cottreaux making best use of the stunning snow-filled location.
Here’s the trailer.