Released without fanfare by Artificial Eye in the UK, the latest film from Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri deserves a much bigger audience than it is getting in UK cinemas. The couple’s scripts are directed by Jaoui and both are also actors in an ensemble cast. Like their previous films Au bout du conte centres on the ‘cultural’ sector of the French bourgeoisie. The difference here is that Jaoui has decided to incorporate a discourse about fairytales into the familiar network of shifting relationships. The couple’s films are invariably witty takes on relationships informed by previous collaborations with Alain Resnais and Cédric Klapisch (both Jaoui and Bacri also work as actors on separate projects). Here, the starting point is Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods and fairytale films like Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin and Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. The English title of the film is not helpful and a better, more helpful translation might be ‘Happily Ever After’, (the end of the fairytale).
In some ways, the central idea here is most similar to the couple’s 2004 film Comme une image (Look at Me, France-Italy). In that film Jean-Pierre Bacri plays a cold-blooded and rather egotistical celebrity author with a daughter who is attempting to become a classical singer. In this new film, he is again a rather grouchy figure (owner of a local driving school) with an estranged son who is a budding composer of ‘contemporary music’. The son is Sandro (Arthur Dupont), the ‘Prince Charming’ of the story, but also in a neat inversion, its Cinderella as well. At a party Sandro meets Laura (Agathe Bonitzer) – and loses his shoe when he rushes off early to pick up his mother who is closing her late night bar. Agathe is the ‘Princess’, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, but she is also Little Red Riding Hood on her way to her aunt’s house in the woods and prey to the ‘big bad wolf’ who lives next door. The aunt, a hippyish school teacher is played by Jaoui herself. The aunt is also separated from her husband and she takes driving lessons from Bacri’s character. This spiralling of relationships is a common feature of the scripts by Jaoui-Bacri. The scripts are meticulously written with dialogue being Bacri’s specialism.
The difference this time is the fairytale discourse. This is presented – and commented on – in a number of ways. At the straightforward iconic level, Jaoui’s character Marianne is attempting to persuade a class of primary children to perform a play based on traditional fairytales. She also lives in a house that resembles a house in the woods in Hansel and Gretel. This visual impression is re-inforced by CGI rendering for a dream sequence and there are references to several forms of mysticism ranging from Marianne’s young daughter’s sudden interest in Jesus via clairvoyants and alternative therapies to modern psychoanalysis. More subtle is the cinematography by the Bulgarian Lubomir Bakchev. In the film’s press notes Jaoui tells us that she and Bakchev shared an interest in Russian films they both saw in Paris years ago. He has come up with a very fluid style for the film which emphasises the ‘swirl’ of relationships and an overall motif of ‘circling’. There are one or two clever devices to create the impression of ‘otherworldliness’. In one scene a teddy bear dances on a window sill as we look through at Pierre. Later we realise it is a wind-up toy but for a moment it looks ‘real’. Much of this effect is about sound and in the press notes Jaoui also discusses her increased confidence in manipulating sound as well as making more use of music. I can’t comment on the ‘contemporary’ score written by Sandro but there is good use of a Gil Scott-Heron song for the sequence in which the ‘Princess’ is ‘lost’. At the end of the film, which doesn’t quite see everyone living ‘happily ever after’, I nevertheless felt better, having enjoyed myself – and laughed out loud several times.
As well as Comme une image, see earlier postings on this blog of Let’s Talk About the Rain (2008) and Looking for Hortense (2012) (which stars Bacri and is directed by Pascale Bonitzer, Agathe’s father).
A short teaser trailer:
I’m looking again at some French ‘comedy’ films as part of work on Cherchez Hortense. In Comme une image, the partnership of Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri offers the same milieu as Cherchez Hortense with Bacri himself as a very different leading character.
Comme une image refers to Lolita, a self-conscious young woman, who is attempting to become a (classical singer). She feels herself to be overweight and unattractive and suffers low esteem because her father Étienne (Bacri), a successful publisher and writer, doesn’t give her much encouragement. (The title could also refer, in a different way, to the father who has a very high opinion of himself – and somehow persuades several others to look ‘up’ to him.) Lolita’s singing teacher Sylvia (Jaoui) is more understanding and through her partner Pierre, also a writer, she meets the publisher. Lolita has a boyfriend who turns out to be interested in her only as a means of getting an introduction to her father. Meanwhile she accidentally meets Sébastien, a young North African-French trainee journalist who she in turn treats badly, though he seems to genuinely care for her. Finally, Karine is Etienne’s new, young and pretty wife, with whom he has a small daughter, step-sister to Lolita. Karine also struggles to maintain her esteem in the face of Etienne’s sarcasm and cruel wit.
‘Comme une image’ is also the title of the novel written by Pierre who becomes drawn into Etienne’s circle. The narrative actually follows the creative projects of Lolita (to sing in a group performance), Pierre (to promote his current title and to start the next) and Etienne (to get over his writer’s block). The strains between the characters culminate in the singing concert at a country church and an after-show party hosted by Eitienne in his nearby country house. The brilliance of the film, directed by Jaoui and co-written by her and Bacri, is in its humanist/realist approach to dialogue and settings. Its conventional staging directs our attention to the swift interchange of lines that seem believable rather than scripted for effect. Bacri is extremely effective as Eitienne who sometimes seems genuinely surprised that others find him cold, cruel, unfeeling etc. and indeed he often speaks and acts in ways that most of us would probably want to emulate at certain times, but are too polite to actually carry through. But if Etienne is at times insufferable, even the most sympathetic character, Sylvia, is capable of anger towards someone else – hurting their feelings (even though she is arguably justified in venting her anger). Most of the characters are simply too weak to risk Etienne’s displeasure – feeling that his patronage will benefit them.
I’ve seen Woody Allen mentioned as a reference point for the Jaoui/Bacri films and I can see some resemblances but overall I find the differences more striking. Comme une image is intelligent and serious, yet somehow also light and entertaining. It never strikes me (as Allen’s films sometimes do) as ‘smart’, ‘knowing’ etc. with the expectation of a possible gag or self-conscious aside. (But this may be because I’ve given up on Woody Allen films for many years now.) When I first saw this film on its cinema release I don’t think I was aware of Jaoui’s background which is in part Tunisian-Jewish (the North African Jewish connection is also evident in the backgrounds of Claude Lelouch and Joann Sfar). I don’t recognise any connection to the New York Jewish humour of Woody Allen (I’m sure somebody can correct me on that) but in Comme une image, there is a nicely judged pair of scenes in which Sebastién’s North African heritage is commented on and sensitively ‘dealt with’ as an issue.
Comme une image is a ‘comedy’ because it has a happy ending for two of the main characters. Some of the dialogue is witty but mainly the humour comes from the human frailties displayed by all the characters. I’ve seen the film described as social satire, but I think that usually satire is sharper and more exaggerated. This has an effective satire effect but it is more subtle. I think that the film is a triumph for Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri. He is a very good actor and writer but she manages to sing and to direct as well. Formidable!
Here’s an American trailer (note that the film was a Cannes Prizewinner for the Script):
I’m not sure if Agnès Jaoui gets the attention she deserves (outside France) as one of the great filmmakers (taking the term in its widest sense). Certainly she wins the awards, stacking up Césars with regularity, but she doesn’t often get discussed as arguably the most successful woman in contemporary French Cinema – as actor, writer and director. Perhaps it’s because her achievements are always in conjunction with her partner, the droll Jean-Pierre Bacri. The couple have written two award-winning scripts for Alain Resnais (Smoking/No Smoking, 1994 and On connaît la chanson, 1998) plus Un air de famille (1997) for Cédric Klapisch. They then followed these hits with two of their own in which they both starred and Agnès directed, Le goût des autres (The Taste of Others, 2000) and Comme une image (Look at Me, 2004). In the meantime Agnès has continued to act in a range of other films.
I enjoyed these last two films a great deal (and Une air de famille, which I saw before I realised who they were) and I was looking forward to seeing their latest venture. It didn’t disappoint and I laughed more than I have for a long time. All the scripts the couple write seem to have the same basis – a group of people who come together for an event of some kind during which their relationships and personal issues will be exposed and challenged. Usually the protagonists are related as family members, partners or work colleagues. Parlez-moi de la pluie (a title taken from a chanson as I discovered from various reviews) takes place in an unusually rainy August in Provence. As several commentators have pointed out, the plot brings together several current concerns of French Cinema with two sisters, Agathe and Florence, meeting in their parents old house to sort out their mothers’ papers after her death. This recalls the Olivier Assayas film, Summer Hours which played earlier this year. The family came back to France from North Africa and Mimouna, the maid/nanny from their childhood is still with the family. Mimouna’s son Karim works as a clerk in a local hotel but he is an enthusiastic filmmaker who has yet to fulfil his potential. He teams up with Michel, his former tutor/mentor, an eccentric and not very competent journalist/filmmaker to make an ‘intimate documentary’ about a successful woman. They choose Agathe as she is a bestselling Parisian author, an avowed feminist now hoping to launch a political career. Michelis divorced and has begun an affaire with Florence. Karim is happily married, but also attracted to his co-worker at the hotel, Aurélie and Agathe, who doesn’t believe in marriage has a boyfriend in tow.
The set-up sounds more like a farce or a melodrama, but Jaoui and Bacri’s skill in writing dialogue and orchestrating scenes is such that it produces a social comedy, a humanist drama and a gentle political satire. This third film is more ‘political’ than the previous two. The North African connection recalls the dark ‘secret’ behind Caché (Hidden, 2005) and the political ambitions of Agathe, although she is never presented in situ as a politician, nevertheless allows a discussion about the urban/rural divide in France. This sequence offered me the funniest scenes I’ve seen this year, involving impeccable comic timing by a flock of sheep on a hillside. Jaoui has either the patience of a saint or a real empathy for animals.
Of course, the danger of this kind of approach is that the balance between farce and nuanced social commentary is very fine. I’ve read several reviews claiming the film is ‘unbelievable’ and ‘soggy’ (the inevitable references to the rain). But, for me, this is the genius of the film in that the comedy punctures the social defences that characters have constructed, revealing a truer self beneath. This is certainly the case with Agathe who at first seems like a self-centred and disciplined metropolitan, but later becomes humanised. Admittedly the situation is silly, but it is played with a seriousness that allows the trick to work. Bacri is magnificent as the incompetent filmmaker.
There are a couple of puzzling aspects to the character of Karim that I’d like to see explained a bit more (others have noticed the same points and as yet nobody has come up with an explanation). The first is a comment Karim makes about how his mother is treated when she visits a pharmacist. The subtitles translate the pharmacist’s comment as something along the lines of “take three blue ones in the morning and two red ones at night”. This is clearly intended to be taken as an institutionally racist comment directed towards an older North African woman. It strikes me as mildly patronising at worst and in the UK is probably common practice – I take medication regularly and I’m not offended if someone reminds me what the different coloured tablets do. I suspect I might be missing something here? (The other observation Karim makes is much more clearly an insult.) The second issue is the non-role given to Karim’s wife. She really only exists to have her name mis-remembered by Michel and to stand in the way of a possible affaire between Karim and Aurélie. This just seemed to me to be a rare mistake in an otherwise well-constructed script.
As Karim, Jamel Debbouze is excellent. He is a huge star in France, partly through television as well as film appearances. I’ve only seen him in Indigènes (Days of Glory, 2006) the terrific film about the French Army of Africa fighting in the Second World War and in Amélie. He must in some ways be the biggest film star with a visible disability working currently. I remembered this in the first few minutes of his screen time and then forgot about it completely. I mention it simply because this week the Guardian carried a short article about a comedy film made by a disabled director and cast in the UK. As arguably France’s leading comedian, Jamel Debbouze needs more exposure in the UK – for our benefit. He seems to be doing pretty well for himself, as do Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri.