Arnaud Desplechin’s film was screened at Cannes in 2021 and released in cinemas in some territories in early 2022. It is now available to stream on MUBI. I presume that this means that it is unlikely to appear in cinemas in the UK and US. If so that would be a shame but not perhaps unusual. Deception is an adaptation of the 1990 novel by Philip Roth and presenting such a text in the aftermath of #MeToo does raise a number of questions. Roth, who died in 2018, became more controversial as a writer towards the end of his career as attitudes towards gender relationships changed. As a novelist he adopted several identities, each of which was a version of himself and Deception presents us with ‘Philip’, an American writer who spends time living in London in 1987 attempting to to write a new novel. His practice is to reflect on his previous extra-marital affairs. Each day he leaves the house rented for himself and his wife and visits a small flat intended as a study. Here he meets a younger Englishwoman. The three other women, besides his wife, who feed into his thoughts include an ex-lover and friend in the US, a young Czech exile and a former student from his teaching days at a university. The novel he is writing is dialogue heavy and appears to make use of his conversations with these women. Are they ‘real’ conversations or a product of his imagination?
1987 is two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is important in terms of Philip’s interest in Eastern Europe, but otherwise the only markers of the time are the phone sets and a red telephone box. Desplechin had wanted to adapt the novel for many years and had actually had a conversation about it with Roth after a reference on the DVD of Desplechin’s 2004 film Kings & Queen. He returned to the idea during lockdown which made him think of the writer’s room which allows Roth’s ‘Philip’ to shut out the world. The Press Notes for Deception include interviews with Desplechin and his two stars, Léa Seydoux as ‘the English lover’ and Denis Podalydès which I read after the screening. I was struck by Desplechin’s assertion that ‘realist cinema’ locks characters into their own little box whereas he likes the idea of the writer’s room where the characters can be ‘free’. This then translates to the director’s approach to the adaptation and his collaboration with his co-writer Julie Peyr and his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. Despite the English setting, the cast are all leading French actors and the dialogue is in French. The ‘room’ is re-imagined in different ways over the narrative, starting on stage in the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris. We never see Philip travelling and his memories of meeting a young Czech woman are played out against black and white film footage, back-projected. During the long scenes of interaction with the English lover (who is never named), the camerawork includes many close-ups and effects like iris-masking.
My own preference is for realist/sociological detail but I do enjoy the use of fantasy and effects in scenes so I was quite prepared to follow Philip’s thoughts in this way. I have read some of Roth’s works, but mainly the earlier novels so I didn’t have too much difficulty with the idea of a writer who plays around with his own identity in his texts. The most concrete issue of Philip’s identity is arguably his ‘Jewishness’ which is discussed at various points including his interest in other Jewish novelists, his family history which he traces back to his family roots in Galicia in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the profile of modern Israel. He also states that English Jewry is ‘soft’ compared to the more vigorous American Jewish culture. It’s at this point that I did find it slightly problematic, wondering if this was only Roth’s viewpoint, one invented by ‘Philip’ or whether there was also a French perspective in there somewhere? ‘Englishness’ appears only in terms of the pub where the lovers meet or complaints about the weather.
What to make of the world of Philip, the thoughts in his head and his interactions and memories with the four women? Is there a misogynist charge? The film narrative is divided into chapters, one of which, ‘The Trial’, is a theatrical staging of the case against Philip conducted solely by women. Desplechin says this is a pure Kafka sequence and Philip defends himself against all charges. Apart from the director and his lead actor, most of the other significant figures in the film are women. At this point I should say that the five women who play the four lovers and the wife and the women in the court give excellent performances and whatever I do think of the film overall, the actors (including the great Emmanuelle Devos ) are a major source of pleasure alongside the camerawork and art direction. The music by Grégoire Hetzel is also very good. The central question is really about the extent to which Léa Seydoux bought into the script. She is literally the most exposed character in the film with some of the most provocative lines, all delivered with panache and heart. If I have any doubt it is only about Roth’s view of the world. This is a film narrative which plays out within the sealed world of the writer’s head, with only tantalising glimpses into the characters’ relationships to events in the wider world outside. The lover has a young daughter who is never seen and an unhappy marriage, so perhaps she wants to just enjoy the hours away from her family or is her motherhood simply not relevant in the context of her afternoons with Philip? The lovers do discuss what having a child can mean at one point but just as we don’t know what Philip’s wife does while he is away in his room, that’s as far as it goes.
I think I surprised myself by enjoying the film more than I thought I might. That may be mostly because of the performances, the direction and the presentation. Léa Seydoux and Denis Podalydès are a joy to watch at work.
François Truffaut was the subject of a major retrospective at BFI Southbank earlier this year and I’ve been trying to find time to return to a study of his films. I wonder what audiences in 2022 made of this film? It is seen by many of Truffaut’s fans as his misfire, leaving many wondering what he was up to. This is surprising, partly because the film presents many familiar Truffaut elements and connections with his other films. The most direct connection is to Truffaut’s early short feature Les Mistons (France 1957) which is included as a very welcome ‘extra’ on the Artificial Eye Region B Blu-ray for Une belle fille. I like Les mistons very much but it probably needs its own post. It features Bernadette Lafont (1938-2013) in her first film and the suggestion is that Une belle fille comme moi is Truffaut’s gift/hommage to the woman who became, in Dave Kehr’s words, “the nouvelle vague‘s most memorable embodiment of earthy sexuality”.
The second connection is to Truffaut’s love of hard-boiled pulp fiction, published in French as Série noir novels and as part of American crime fiction more generally. There are four distinct Truffaut noirs/polars based on such novels: Tirez sur le pianiste (1960), La mariée était en noir (1968), La sirène du Mississipi (1969) and Vivement Dimanche! (1982). Une belle fille comme moi is perhaps related to Vivement Dimanche as a ‘comedy crime film’, but its plotting is more closely related to La mariée était en noir (which is not a comedy). The original novel which Truffaut and Jean-Loup Dabadie adapted was by Henry Farrell, whose writing career covered novels, screenplays and teleplays. He wrote the novel for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (US 1962) and the screenplays for the follow-ups, Hush . . . , Hush Sweet Charlotte (US 1964) and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971). These were all ‘gothic horror’ crime stories. Une belle fille comme moi is something rather different. As a crime comedy it also uses elements of the musical and the farce.
Camille Bliss (Lafont) is a prisoner at the start of the film, convicted of murder. She is interviewed by a young sociologist Stanislas Prévine (André Dussollier in his first film feature role) who is preparing a thesis on ‘criminal women’. Camille begins to tell her story through flashbacks and Stanislas soon finds himself in love with her despite the lurid story she tells. He’s convinced she is innocent. In the first flashback to her childhood we get an inkling of the kind of film we are going to see when little Camille is kicked by her drunken father across his farmyard and she literally flies through the air to land on top of a hay wagon. She spends her girlhood in a ‘Home for Observation of Juvenile Delinquents’. Her later escapades involve marriage and her initial escape from that into flings with various men. In all Camille hitches up with six men over the course of the narrative. Five of them are vanquished. The 5:1 ratio is a reminder of Les mistons (five young boys pursuing Bernadette Lafont) and La mariée était en noir with five men despatched by Jeanne Moreau. I won’t spoil the narrative though the film’s critics suggest that the ending is obvious from the start.
So what is the problem? Critics argue that Truffaut can’t handle a full-blown feature of broad comedy like this and that he made a mistake in making his lead such a trollop. Actually, quite a few call her a ‘slut’ or a ‘tart’ or worse. Some of them seem to suggest that Truffaut’s problems with sexuality lead him into a certain kind of sour prudery. I think that if you take only a casual glance at the film, it can in some instances seem a bit like a series of Benny Hill sketches with Camille in various stages of undress running from lecherous men over whom she eventually triumphs. But look more closely and think a bit more about the narrative and the performances and a different film emerges I think. At the centre of the film is Bernadette Lafont, let off the leash and given the chance to take control of the narrative, in fact she literally narrates her own (fictional) story. She had been a dancer and she commands the screen partly through the way she moves. In my ancient guide to the ‘400 key figures in French cinema’ by Marcel Martin (1971), her entry describes her as having a “gay but unsophisticated frankness”. That seems a good call. Camille is the simple country girl who realises that she can get whatever she wants by offering herself for sex which she clearly enjoys. She may appear to be exploited but in fact she remains in control. It was still unusual in 1972 for a narrative to feature a woman with this kind of narrative ‘agency’. Although Truffaut was adapting an American property, the film does have elements in common with Nelly Kaplan’s La fiancée du pirate (France 1969). This also featured Bernadette Lafont in the lead role as a young woman in rural France living in a marginalised family who eventually turns to prostitution as a way of gaining control over the locals who look down on her. Kaplan’s film (known in the US as Dirty Mary) became something of a feminist text in the UK in the early 1970s and was screened at various conferences (including at the NFT in April 1973) as well as in late night cinema shows. It’s also worth remembering that the early 1970s was a period when there were many European sexploitation films in UK cinemas (usually dubbed) as well as UK softcore productions, whereas in New York when Truffaut’s film opened it was competing with hardcore titles like Behind the Green Door (1972) with Marilyn Chambers and at another extreme one of Bergman’s most powerful films Cries and Whispers (Sweden 1972) which was nominated for five Oscars (and won one).
In the circumstances it isn’t surprising that Truffaut’s film should be rejected by some of the most high profile critics. Jan Dawson suggests in Monthly Film Bulletin (May 1973) that despite using a familiar structure as seen in his other films, Truffaut fails because the “breathless quality that he seeks to impose on his heroine’s odyssey is more suggestive of exhaustion than effervescence”. By contrast Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram (1998) offer a detailed analytic reading which I find most helpful. They point out that the film’s aesthetic presents the scenes involving Stanislas in an almost realist mode, whereas those presenting Camille’s re-telling of her story are much more ‘anti realist’ – drawing on cartoons, slapstick and musical numbers. They suggest that Stanislas represents the familiar Truffaut figure of the patriarchy, the representative of rules and conformity trying to contain Camille’s energy in his book. The book is intended to be about ‘criminal women’ but it is the woman who is the protagonist and the one with whom a popular audience might identify. I think every scene in the film is carefully thought out and I don’t find the overall effect to be one of exhaustion. Every scene deals in some way with the same concerns found elsewhere in Truffaut’s work. To be fair to Dawson she does discuss what she sees as an effective sequence in which Stanislas and his young secretary are searching for some film footage of Camille which could be evidence to use in court. When they find it, they have to negotiate with a 9-year old boy who doesn’t want to show the footage to them because it is not yet edited, as clear a reference to the cinema obsessed young François as you could ask for. Other reviews spend time discussing Truffaut’s various hommages to Hitchcock, Hawks and Renoir but I don’t want to go there just at the moment.
I surprised myself in enjoying Une belle fille comme moi more than I thought I would. At other times I have found Truffaut’s approach to his female characters to be a problem but his approach here is consistent and makes good use of his star. The film has an excellent score by Georges Delerue and the cinematography is by Pierre-William Glenn who also shot La nuit américaine (1972) and L’argent de poche (1976). It was filmed mostly around Béziers in the South of France. There is a mystery about the intended aspect ratio for the film. IMDb suggests 1.85:1 but this is clearly wrong. A contributor on DVD Beaver suggests that it was shot ‘Open Matte’ and that it was intended to be projected at 1.66:1. The Artificial Eye Blu-ray is presented as 1.33:1 and I can’t see how many of the scenes could be cropped for widescreen without destroying the compositions.
Holmes, Diana and Ingram, Robert (1998) François Truffaut, Manchester: Manchester University Press
This unusual but rather wonderful film was one of several titles from My French Film Festival that have also been streaming on MUBI in the UK. It’s about to disappear from MUBI but is available from other streamers such as Amazon, Apple, YouTube etc. It is a début feature film by Chloé Mazlo after several short features, co-written by the director and Yacine Badday. Chloé Mazlo comes from a background of graphic arts leading to work in animation. She grew up in France with memories of her Lebanese family who left their country during the civil war of the 1970s and the film is her very personal way of trying to represent what happened within her family during the war.
The narrative begins with Alice, a young woman bored and stifled by what she sees as the conformity of francophone Switzerland, who arrives in Beirut in the 1950s as a nanny. Quickly she falls in love with Joseph a research scientist she meets in a café. He has dreams of leading a Lebanese attempt to enter the ‘space race’ by building a rocket. Alice marries into his Arab Christian family and all is well until the beginning of the civil war in 1975. The film narrative is not about the war as such, but about what it does to the family and how they understand it and try to deal with it. The story is told in a long flashback as Alice makes the journey from Beirut to Cyprus in 1977, seemingly to return to Switzerland.
The English title of the film is slightly misleading. The French title tells us directly that we are going to experience a story as Alice tells it and how she felt about it. I should point out that there has been an odd occurrence in the last few months since the appearance of this film on UK streamers has coincided with the UK cinema release of Memory Box (Lebanon-France-Canada 2021) by the Lebanese filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. The parallels are extraordinary. Both films are about memories of the civil war in Beirut, both narrated from ‘exile’ about family life during the troubles and both using drawings, photographs and other artefacts to tell the story. There is also a further connection in that Hadjithomas and Joreige, well-known Lebanese filmmakers, made a documentary about the Lebanese rocket project, The Lebanese Rocket Society in 2012. I’ve just noted that this is actually available on MUBI. I’m not suggesting that one film borrows from the other. Sous le ciel d’Alice was released first but it was made completely outside Lebanon, shot in a French studio with exteriors in Cyprus. Memory Box was made in Canada and Lebanon.
Chloé Mazlo uses a very wide range of animation and graphic ideas to present her story, raging from puppet stop motion animation for Alice’s decision to leave Switzerland to the use of old photographs as backdrops in 1950s Beirut and various costumes and masks to represent significant figures in Lebanon. The first third of the film I found simply glorious in its creativity and warmth. As the narrative progresses the use of these devices reduces in relation to the realist live action scenes (although these still have a conscious use of a colour palette dominated by pastel colours). Mazlo describes this transition like this:
. . . the first movement of the film is based on a colourful and fanciful staging, almost pictorial, more visually striking. These extravagances gradually diminish over the course of the film, even if they remain present, with the rocket project for example. Gradually, we get closer and closer to the tragedy of Lebanon: Alice and Joseph can no longer speak to each other. They try, but they can’t, and they suffer from the lack of levity and innocence of their past. (from a Google translation of the original French)
The film was photographed by the vastly experienced and talented Hélène Louvart, shooting on Super 16mm film. I was reminded of her work on Happy as Lazzaro (Italy 2018) directed by Alice Rohrwacher. Rohrwacher’s actor sister Alba featured in the Italian film and plays Alice in Sous le ciel d’Alice. She is an excellent actor and a familiar figure in contemporary cinema, well cast here. Joseph is played by Wajdi Mouawad, primarily a writer for the theatre, whose books and plays were part of Chloé Mazlo’s education as an artist. Mouawad was born in Lebanon but his family migrated first to France and then to Canada. One of his plays was adapted by Denis Villeneuve for the film Incendies (Canada 2010). The rest of the cast for Sous le ciel d’Alice are all Lebanese.
I enjoyed the first part of the film very much and then felt a little deflated when I realised that the amount of animation and graphics was being reduced. I understand Mazlo’s decision as explained in the quote above and perhaps as I watched the Alice’s family life begin to suffer I was being reminded of Memory Box and the way the same period was presented on screen in that film. It isn’t a fair representation as Memory Box has a young protagonist looking outwards whereas Alice is in her forties when civil war breaks out and more focused on her family. Sous le ciel d’Alice requires both Alice and Joseph to age 20+ years. I don’t think this is a problem and both actors carry it off. Overall it is a well thought out script and a fine début film. Alice develops as an artist in the film and her sketches become another form of graphic presentation in the story. The film’s ending is suitably ‘open’, I think. I recommend the film highly. At the moment I don’t think that there are plans to bring it to UK cinemas but it should work fine on screeners as well.
The Promise is a six part TV crime fiction serial that was successful in its home territory (the best TV drama launch since 2015) and has recently completed its run on BBC4 in the UK. It will stay on BBC iPlayer for an indeterminate period. This serial is in many ways quite familiar and at least two of my colleagues abandoned watching it because they thought the concepts were becoming hackneyed. I can see this but there are enough original elements to make it an interesting watch for me.
The serial also comes with a pedigree, boasting as ‘creator’ and co-writer of all six episodes, Anne Landois (one of the principal writers of the last four Engrenages (Spiral) serials). One of its attractions is the setting in South Western France in Nouvelle-Aquitaine. ‘Les Landes’ is the coastal region south of Bordeaux, most of which is dominated by an extensive pine forest that extends to the coast. Although one of the largest French départements, Landes is relatively under-populated and isolated with a few small towns. Forestry is the major primary resource and source of employment. Visually distinctive, the forest also provides the perfect environment in which to disappear.
During Christmas 1999, a fierce storm causes damage and some confusion in which an 11 year-old girl goes missing. Local detective Pierre Castaing (Olivier Marchal, a well-known actor in French film and TV – and a former police officer) takes charge of the search. His two young daughters are close to him as the search extends. Castaing begins to suspect a man, but his colleagues arrest a younger man. The girl is not found and after a year Castaing loses control of the case and is ostracised by his colleagues. The case has had a devastating on Castaing and his marriage is breaking up. Twenty years later, Castaing’s older daughter Sarah (Sofia Essaïdi) is working as a team leader in the ‘Juvenile Unit’ of the local police in Bordeaux. She is alerted to a kidnapping of a young girl in an outer suburb of Bordeaux. Eventually she will find the girl in the woods some way south of the city, but the kidnapper is not around. His trail will take her down to a village near Bayonne, 185 km away. This is her home territory, reviving memories of her father’s case all those years ago. (Bayonne is actually just outside the Landes départment and IMDb lists the shoot as being around Dax.)
The first episode is bewildering in the way that the transitions between 1999 and 2019 are not marked in any way. I think of myself as a ‘visually literate’ person but I missed many of the markers of different time periods. Pierre Castaing drives a Range Rover but in a rural area these are more common and could be twenty years old. White vans for the kidnapper are not particularly distinctive. Rural areas are often ‘behind’ the big city in fashions. At the end of the episode I was baffled but intrigued. I assumed I would make sense of the narrative in the next few episodes but the time shifting continues throughout the serial, weaving Sarah’s story around the flashbacks to Pierre’s. The viewer is likely to forget the ordering of the different time segments. At one point a wipe is used in such a way that father’s head is replaced by his daughter’s twenty years later within the same shot. It’s rare to find a serial in which the viewer has to work so hard to re-construct a linear narrative.
It is likely that many viewers in the UK gave up after this first episode as, alongside the time-shifts, it does feel like we have been here often before. An 11 year-old girl seemingly kidnapped by an older man, a police detective with a collapsing marriage, a younger police captain with her own personal issues etc. All of these have become conventions but I think there are sufficient different elements to make this a narrative that repays the extra work for the viewer. However, there are a couple of serious flaws. The most glaring is that Sarah manages to stay in Bayonne to pursue her investigations without, as far as I can see, any official request that she return to Bordeaux where she has an important role. Her behaviour, mirroring her father’s, affects her relationships with the local police. A second flaw is the handling of Sarah’s romance/relationship with a lawyer in Bordeaux. He seems like more of an afterthought or perhaps he simply represents the big city which seems irrelevant in the Landes?
This isn’t, in the end, a ‘procedural’ like most of the crime fiction dramas featuring female detectives. It does present a detailed family melodrama set in a small community with the local landscape playing a crucial role. The setting actually begins to move the tone or ‘feel’ of the narrative towards both rural horror and the ‘uncanny’ – only marginally and not as much as some other French serials such as Witnesses (2014 – ). The cinematography by Benjamin Louet, presented in a 2:1 ratio with many drone shots and overheads adds to the genre feel of horror/mystery. The six episodes are each 52-53 minutes and less time than usual is spent on re-capping at the start of each episode, so this is a ‘300 minute plus’ narrative.
Anne Landois’ co-creator and co-writer on the serial is Gaëlle Bellan, who wrote episodes for Engrenages 6. All six episodes of La promesse were directed by Laure de Butler. It does seem that, just as in the UK, more TV drama is now appearing from creative teams led by women. There are a host of female characters in this serial but some of the key characters such as Sarah’s sister and her mother seem to be under-developed. As the image above suggests, the sister Lilas, spends time in prison. The younger women in the cast are played by two actors to cover the twenty year development. The two sisters are well cast as teenagers and adults. Sarah’s mother is played by the same actor who changes the most in physical appearance and demeanour, but without playing a significant role in the narrative development. I’m left wondering, how long must a long narrative be to cover all its possible stories and characters? I’ve deliberately not mentioned aspects of the plot of this serial but I would be interested to watch it again – and to visit the Landes.
Here’s a brief ‘Bande annonce’ for episodes 3 and 4
My French Film Festival has often included an animated feature in its programme and this year it is Calamity which offers something slightly different to Josep (France 2020) and The Swallows of Kabul (France-Luxembourg 2019) in previous years. First it has a different drawn style with bold colours and strong lines but little detail in the background or characters, though it has plenty of energy. Second it is arguably a film for all ages with a mythical storyline rather than the political context of the earlier films. The film has had a theatrical release in France and Japan as well as some other European countries but in the UK it has gone straight to digital download and is widely available on streamers – more on this later.
It took me a while to make the direct connection between Martha, the hero of the story, and the real ‘Calamity Jane’, mainly because I didn’t know about the historical Martha Jane Cannary. The film, directed by Rémi Chayé and co-written by Chayé with Fabrice de Costil and Sandra Tosello, does not set out to be an accurate partial biopic but the broad idea of the story fits the mythologising of her life that Cannary herself embellished. We meet a young teenage Martha on a wagon train in 1863 with her father and siblings. They are a relatively poor family compared to some of the other travellers. The wagon train is led by a rather strict ‘elder’ of the community, whose teenage son Ethan becomes something of a tormentor of Martha. I recognised some of the conventions in representing the wagon train crossing the plains and the mountain ranges from classic Hollywood films such as John Ford’s Wagon Master from 1950. Martha’s train doesn’t have a professional guide or ‘wagon master’ and that means that the narrative develops partly because of the mistakes the leader makes and accidents that befall the wagons. Several scenes reminded me of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010) – but that film framed the Western landscape in Academy ratio. Calamity offers us a CinemaScope view of the landscape which references Westerns from 1954 onwards.
The plot sees Martha leaving the wagon train in an attempt to clear her name after an incident which also sees her changing into trousers rather than a skirt and eventually cutting her hair. After learning to ride and lasso horses and cattle, her adventures see her being taken to be a boy. (This reminded me of Maggie Greenwald’s 1993 Western, The Ballad of Little Jo.) Many wagon trains suffered disasters and lives were lost, especially on the Oregon trail but this narrative has a happy ending, making it suitable family entertainment. There was a moment (in a mine) when I thought it was going to become frightening but the danger was quickly overcome. One of the main features of the film is its fast pacing with frequent actions. It’s a relatively short feature of around 80 minutes plus end credits. In addition there is a lively mountain music/bluegrass score by the Argentinian composer Florencia Di Concilio and the soundtrack can be sampled on YouTube. Martha meets various characters on her travels including another renegade character, a young man not that much older than herself. At one point Martha meets a trio of trappers who I think are Native Americans but otherwise the use of colour and the drawing techniques do not necessarily attempt to denote ethnicity. It is worth remembering that the date is given as 1863, before the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the migration of freed slaves across the Missouri.
I enjoyed the film which I think demonstrates strong story-telling. The film seems to have gone down well with audiences and has won prizes, including at the Annecy International Animation Festival. I’m not an expert on animation and I’m not sure I appreciate the visual style as much as some of the animation experts. I’m also not sure that I find the rebellion of a young girl fighting against gender norms to be such a novel experience as some reviewers – in some ways Martha seems like a Miyazaki hero (and what I presume Disney has been trying to achieve more recently). But if the film works to inspire young women that’s great. I think the version of the film released in Japan has a Japanese dub but one of the few English language reviewers of this film bemoans the fact that there is no English dub – and that this will restrict and possibly exclude entirely the young audiences it might otherwise find. In industry terms I think that is a fair comment. In most European countries that regularly subtitle foreign language films, provision is usually made to dub animated films with children as a target audience into the local language. On the other hand this is not a dialogue heavy film and I think young audiences will probably be able to follow the English subtitles. I discovered that the film has been available for some time on BFI Player (subscribers only) and that it is now also available on Google and YouTube to stream. The Amazon and Apple streams may be linked to BFI Player subscription offer which ends soon. The trailer below has English subs. If you have a MUBI subscription, I’ve discovered that Rémi Chayé’s previous film Long Way North (France-Denmark 2015) is available to stream currently.
Often with film festivals I start a screening knowing little about the film – which has both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to managing expectations. This is especially true of My French Film Festival because I buy a ticket that covers most of the films (there are a couple which are not available in the UK). I started All Hands on Deck with no idea of what I might be watching. Halfway through I thought the film was OK but a bit underwhelming. The last part was better and in the end I was pleased to have seen it. To my surprise I then realised that the director Guillaume Brac is now quite well-known internationally and is being touted as an Eric Rohmer-like filmmaker for contemporary cinema. This film screened at Berlin in 2020 and was released in France in 2021 to acclaim and recognition as a successful comedy. I realised that I had looked briefly at the collection of Brac’s films currently on MUBI but had not bothered to investigate further. It turns out that this year there are several titles from My French Film Festival also on MUBI.
The English title of the film is not very helpful and the French title refers to ‘boarding’ which is ambiguous so I’ll need to outline the plot. Félix (Eric Nantchouang) and Chérif (Salif Cissé) are two young African-French men in Paris. Félix is a carer who we first meet visiting an elderly woman and then on a night out where he meets a young woman, Alma (Asma Messaoudene), at an open air dance by the Seine. He learns that she is about to go on her summer holiday, staying in a house with her family in rural France. (The house seems to be in Die in Drôme department in South East France.) On a whim, Félix decides to take a week off and surprise her with a visit. He persuades Chérif to join him and they sign up for a car share journey to a campsite close to Alma’s holiday home. The car’s driver, Edouard (Édouard Sulpice), is disappointed to discover they are not the young women he was expecting. Edouard is a young white guy and socially awkward. He and Félix do not get on but Chérif is a calming influence. I think that ‘boarding’ actually refers to the adventures that follow at the campsite, possibly as ‘boarders’ who are in different ways ‘house guests’.
The Rohmer tag makes sense in terms of the dialogue-driven interactions between the three young men and a handful of other young people on the campsite. As well as Alma we meet her older sister and a couple of young men who are working at the site. Chérif also meets someone and it is his relationship which perhaps is the most affecting. Edouard has a few setbacks but he begins to socialise and turns out to be someone who can ‘come out of himself’. The one thing that I did feel in the latter half of the film was that this was not a film that wanted to use the genre conventions of the French summer holiday comedy. Apart from one rather over-bearing character there are no real ‘bad guys’ in the film and this was refreshing – though I did find the occasional outbursts and then fulsome apologies a little annoying.
Reading the film’s Press Pack (in a Google translation) I learned that the actors are all students at the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique de Paris. Brac took up a commission to make a film with the students and he began with a workshop and a simple outline from which the students had to build a character. The final script was then written by Brac and his writing partner Catherine Paillé. The most interesting questions involved the two African-French students. They were clear that they didn’t want to appear in typical roles as guys from les banlieues in Paris and they didn’t want to be in a narrative which focused on their difference/identity. Brac says he understood this but also felt that it was unrealistic and unhelpful to try to ignore their identity, especially in a tourist area in rural France. He and the students agreed that identity issues and typical characters shouldn’t be the focus of the story. I think that the film does avoid this problem but that it is indeed impossible to ignore the fact that Félix and Chérif are recognisable characters, even if they don’t behave in stereotypical ways. Personally, I found Félix a slightly annoying character and Chérif someone I would like to have met on holiday and that’s probably a win for the presentation of the characters. I can see that I should have looked more carefully at the selection of Guillaume Brac’s films that are available on MUBI and I’ll try to watch some of the others. If you come across this film it’s definitely worth a look.