What does ‘French comedy’ mean to you? Back in the 1950s and 60s it wasn’t unusual in the UK to see films featuring comic actors such as Bourvil, Fernandel and Jacques Tati. In the 1990s the Astérix films and other spoofs like Les Visiteurs (1993) came over. We have also seen rom-coms, often with Audrey Tautou or Charlotte Gainsbourg. But many French comedies never make it across the Channel. Just as with German, Spanish and Italian comedies, distributors feel that the different cultural basis for comedy means such films wouldn’t sell in the UK. As a consequence, I’ve not seen as many French comedies as I should and I was intrigued as to what to expect from Perdrix. The title refers to the name of a family in a small village in the Vosges mountains close to the border with Germany – My French Film Festival is certainly a visual treat in terms of landscapes. ‘Perdrix’ translates as ‘partridge’ in English and thinking about Steve Coogan’s creation of Alan Partridge for British film and TV might not be wholly inappropriate since writer-director Erwan Le Duc spent four years as a teenager living in London in the early 1990s. He tells us in the Press Notes that he enjoyed the absurdist and surreal qualities of some British TV comedy but my feeling is that Perdrix is refreshingly individual in its mixture of elements – and the characters are nothing like Alan Partridge!
The film opens with a 30-something woman driving a car stuffed with her possessions. She stops at a picnic site at the edge of a forest and gets out to write in her diary, foolishly leaving the car door open and the keys in the ignition. In a short while she looks up to see a nude woman leap into the car and drive away. Juliette (Maud Wyler) has lost everything and she heads down to the nearest village to report the car hi-jack. In the police station she is informed that this is the work of a group of ‘revolutionary nudists’ who live in the forest. Juliette is not very impressed with the calm and methodical Capitaine Pierre Perdrix (Swann Arlaud), the head of the local gendarmerie. Later she turns up at his house he feels he must invite her in to ‘meet the family’.
I won’t spoil any more of the plot. The Perdrix family is certainly odd. The matriarch Thérèse, played by the always fabulous Fanny Ardant, still pines for her husband who died more than twenty years ago. His portrait dominates the dining room and she diverts herself by running a radio talk show. Pierre’s brother Julien (JuJu) is a worm-researcher rarely engaging with his young daughter Marion who dreams of escape and a sports scholarship and in the meantime practises her table tennis. Her mother appears to have escaped the family group. The police station to some extent mirrors the Perdrix home. There are seemingly far too many gendarmes for a small village, each with their own quirks. As well as the nudists there is a fourth group which I won’t reveal and the four groups interact in various ways (and each develops a narrative of their own) to provide the entertaining backdrop to the central narrative of the attraction between Juliette and Pierre. This starts hesitantly and in the best rom-com traditions has its ups and downs before a key scene in the village bar-disco and a beautifully choreographed and unusual dance sequence cements the possibility of a long-term relationship. Pierre is well-drawn as a man who has tried to keep the family together and has succeeded in his police work, but has become too settled in his ways and needs somebody like Juliette to shake him up.
I’m not sure I found the film ‘laugh out loud’ funny apart from one scene but I did find it engaging and charming. The two leads are very good. I like that they aren’t the usual characters for a rom-com. This is Erwan Le Duc’s first feature after several shorts. Most of these feature Maud Wyler so playing an unusual character like Juliette would not have been so much of a surprise for her. The one short she didn’t appear in was 2011’s Le commissaire Perdrix ne fait pas le voyage pour rien which features a police chief named Perdrix and a junior officer called Webb (the same name as Juliette, but this one is male). Le Duc’s shorts received prizes and this first feature was screened at Cannes and nominated for awards at various festivals. Given the state of French cinema releases in the UK, it is doubtful if this will appear on release in UK cinemas, but if it does sneak out on VOD or DVD I would recommend a look. It is intelligent, entertaining and generally uplifting.
Here’s a clip from the film showing the initial meeting between Pierre and Juliette:
There was a time when French films were released in the UK on a regular basis, sometimes as often as one a fortnight. Now they are much rarer and when they do get a release it is only for a few single screenings. I made sure I caught this one on one of its four Bradford appearances last week. La belle époque is a starry romantic comedy that ought to draw healthy audiences. It opened on in the UK on 22nd November on just 23 screens. We did try to see it in London on the second weekend but the cinema was so small (the 2nd screen at the Lumière in South Kensington) that it was sold out. No problems for an afternoon screening in Bradford.
Written and directed by Nicolas Bedos, this is a film which brings together elements of quite a few well-known films and genres. The central idea is that for a large sum of money an individual could be offered the opportunity to relive a particular event in his or her past (or an earlier historical event if they want to be present at an important moment in history). It isn’t an offer of time travel. Instead a company will build an authentic set and cast actors carefully to play the roles of significant characters. The whole event is then ‘directed’ live.
Daniel Auteuil plays Victor, a man in his late 60s seemingly ‘left behind’ by his wife Marianne, a leading psychiatrist (played by Fanny Ardant), and now generally at odds with the contemporary world of social media and high tech gadgetry. Victor is a graphic artist who seems to have almost given up the prospect of getting published again even though his son runs a publishing company. As a birthday present, Victor’s son wants to give his father a treat and he arranges an event to be re-created by his childhood friend Antoine (Guillaume Canet) the owner-director of the company. Victor decides to accept the offer (he once helped Antoine when he was a boy) and selects his first meeting with Marianne at a small café bar in Lyon in 1974. He even provides sketches of what happened on the day. The ‘re-enactment’ company then build a set in a Paris studio space and Victor takes the plunge. What happens next ‘on set’ and ‘behind the scenes’ then provides the entertainment for a narrative of nearly two hours. We (a couple who met at the roughly the same time in the 1970s) certainly found it an engaging and enjoyable ride. I should point out, however, that the opening scene of the film plunges the audience straight into a re-enactment and a violent incident that isn’t really in tune with the rest of the film. But it soon becomes clear what is happening.
The film pivots around ideas drawn from both romantic comedy and science fiction/fantasy. The scenario is reminiscent of both The Truman Show (US 1998) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (US 2004). Both of these films have elements of comedy and romance. They also both star Jim Carrey but I’m not sure if that is relevant. Victor isn’t unaware like Truman that he is ‘playing’ in a re-creation and he doesn’t need his memories to be messed about by technology like Carrey’s character in Eternal Sunshine – though I need to think about that a bit more. The third film that sprang to mind was the rather different Ghost World (2001). The connection here is the idea of the graphic novel. In Ghost World the central character played by Thora Birch is a would be graphic artist whose sketches lead her to meet a man in a bar-restaurant played by Steve Buscemi. Ghost World is written by Daniel Clowes, a graphic novelist who has provided scripts for several films. Although these connections are all American, Sunshine was directed by Michel Gondry and graphic novels are as important in France (as bandes dessinées) as they are in the US. I thought I hadn’t come across writer-director Nicolas Bedos before but now I realise I have seen him as an actor (e.g. in Populaire, France-Belgium 2012). Populaire now seems an interesting touchstone for this new film. Bedos has also been a TV comedy/satire star and his first film as writer-director was Mrs Adelman (France 2017). It wasn’t released in the UK as far as I can see. He starred in it with his partner Doria Tillier and she is also in this new film as Margo, the actor playing Marianne in the reconstruction and the real ex-partner of Antoine the director. I don’t need to spoil the plot, I’m sure you can see that we have two relationships and that they will get entangled in some way.
Bedos is clearly interested in ‘intertextuality’ – i.e. referencing specific films as well as broader genres. But he also has sub-texts he wants to explore such as critiquing a nostalgia for the 1970s that has developed under Macron (from the Press Notes). On the other hand, he does want to explore the visual images of the 1970s which he clearly finds appealing in various ways. There is quite a lot of 1970s (American) pop music in the film as well. We certainly enjoyed the film but it may be that my knowledge of 1970s France gained via movies of the time is not very accurate – I wasn’t aware that the drug-taking, ‘free love’ and hippiedom was as pronounced in France as it was in the US. In the UK outside parts of Central London it seemed more subdued to me. The four principals are all very good and I was especially impressed by Doria Tillier who has real presence. But I also enjoyed another chance to see Fanny Ardant, an actor I’ve come to appreciate more over the last few years. Daniel Auteil still has his star power and La belle époque de-throned The Joker at the French box office earlier in November. I’m not sure what younger audiences will make of it, but it entertained us and did make us think of a time when nobody had phones to stare into and had to talk to their partners in restaurants. There are still a few UK dates for the film and it will be on VOD soon.
This is a romantic comedy, but one unlike the Hollywood model. Perhaps it has more in common with something like My Sassy Girl (South Korea 2001) and other East Asian hits? The subtitles suggest that ‘Ms Eto’ (first name Yoshika) is an accounts clerk in a Tokyo office. From what I could see she is actually what would once have been called a ‘computer’- usually a female clerk who tallies bills, receipts etc. It’s not a great job, but you need to be quick and accurate. She’s in her mid twenties and, shock, horror, she’s still a virgin thinking about the ‘prince’ she idolised in high school who she calls ‘No. 1’ (his shortened name is Ichi, which could mean ‘1’). One day she finds herself invited to an after-work drinks party where she is propositioned by a fellow worker who she dubs ‘No. 2’. She decides it is time to act. She must find ‘1’ so she can compare the two possible suitors, otherwise she is lost.
Each day Yoshika travels to work along the same route and meets the same characters – her next door neighbour who plays an ocarina, the railway employee at the metro station, a waitress in a coffee shop who wears what appears to be a cosplay outfit, an office cleaner who knits on the bus, an older man fishing and a younger man at the pharmacy/soda shop. Later we will realise that she doesn’t really know these people, she has turned them into her fantasy friends because she is so lonely. Back in her tiny apartment she whiles away the time fascinated by extinct animals.
The narrative provides us with flashbacks to our hero’s schooldays and we see ‘the prince’ how he was then and we’ll be able to compare his current characterisation as Yoshika engineers a situation in which he feels forced to appear. Meanwhile ‘No. 2’ strives manfully to impress. He’s a bit of a klutz but generally well-meaning. But what has Yoshika’s close friend at work told him? Young women in romantic comedies are supposed to have one close friend but Yoshika’s friend seems more like an office acquaintance. The film is adapted from a novel by Wataya Risa and the film is directed by Ohku Akiko, one of the women directing ‘popular’ films in Japan who hasn’t received the same amount of exposure as a festival favourite like Naomi Kawase.
This film’s biggest asset is Matsuoka Mayu as Yoshika. Ms Matsuoka has had exposure internationally for the last year as one of the members of the unusual family group in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters. I was very impressed with her performance in that film but it was a ‘supporting role’ and in this 2017 film she is the protagonist and at the centre of every scene. Still only 22 when she played Yoshika she manages to be a convincing 14 year-old in the flashbacks and both an attractive woman and a flummoxed office drone in her pursuit of a suitor (or perhaps just a boyfriend?).
In her Tokyo Film Festival review of the film, Deborah Young of The Hollywood Reporter repeats several international film industry truisms. After praising Matsuoka’s performance and suggesting that this helped get the film selected for the festival, she continues:
Aimed at Japanese females under 30, chick lit on screen generally occasions smiles, yawns and rolling eyes. In this upscale example, experienced genre veteran Akiko Ohku (Tokyo Serendipity, Tokyo Nameless Girl’s Story, Fantastic Girls) directs a comedy about a kooky young lady who can’t decide between a fantasy guy and a real, imperfect boyfriend. Well-made and amusing if overlong at two hours, it is an Asian flavor that should work well at home but would have a hard time getting a foothold beyond.
The truisms are that men and everyone over 30 will be bored and rolling eyes – and that comedies like this don’t travel. Ms Young is a well-regarded film journalist and she may be correct about how the film won’t appeal outside Japan. But I enjoyed learning something more about Japanese twenty-somethings and the film didn’t feel too long (actually it’s 117 minutes), partly because of sharp editing. There was a good audience for the film at the Showroom and the two young women on my row seemed to have a very good time with it. There were notes with the screening written by Jasper Short, the well-known scholar, critic and enthusiast for Japanese film. Jasper tells us that the film won the Audience Award at the Tokyo Film Festival and that this got it an ‘in’ to other specialist Asian film festivals in Europe and North America, so perhaps there is hope yet for the UK. As Jasper concludes: “We are ultimately left with a universally touching tale of a young woman inwardly struggling to overcome loneliness, a lowly self-image and the reality behind her dreams.” But as he also suggests: “. . . it goes about its business with such effervescence and fresh-faced honesty that one can’t help but succumb to its charms”.
Cape No. 7 is an excellent case study in the recent surge of local commercial hits in East Asian markets. Ostensibly a rom-com with music this film without major stars became the best-selling local film in contemporary Taiwanese cinema as audiences embraced its mix of genre and local history/nostalgia.
Writer-director Wei Te-Sheng had been working in the film industry since the early 1990s and in 1996 he had been assistant director on Edward Yang’s Mahjong. His early short films and his first feature had won prizes but not commercial audiences. It was a brave decision therefore to risk a relatively large budget (by Taiwanese standards) on Cape No. 7.
The film’s title refers to an address in rural Taiwan as written under the Japanese occupation of the island from 1895 to 1945 and Wei got the idea from a newspaper report about a (successful) attempt to deliver mail to such an address in contemporary Taiwan. In Wei’s story, the package sent from Japan refers to the parting of lovers in 1945 when the young man is forced to ‘return’ to Japan. Wei opens the film with the man’s voiceover expressing his emotions as he sails out of Taipei bound for Japan. The narrative returns to this flashback at key moments later in the film.
The temporary postman charged with delivering the package 60 years later is a ‘failed’ rock musician who is forced into temporary work in the small seaside town of Hengchun, a popular tourist resort on the southernmost tip of the island. Aga is in fact ‘coming home’ from Taipei. Meanwhile, a dispute between a large resort hotel and the local council leader means that a music festival on the beach can only take place if an ‘authentic’ Taiwanese band opens the show for a visiting Japanese pop star. Aga is dragooned into forming this band with a motley crew of young and old musicians, representing the diverse population of the region and different musical traditions and including ‘Taiwanese aboriginals’ and the various identities of Han Chinese, including Hakka and Hokkien. The differences between these groups are highlighted in the interactions between the various characters. Charged with getting the group together is a Mandarin-speaking Japanese woman, Tomoko – a former model who reluctantly takes on a kind of mother/schoolteacher role. Will Aga get together with Tomoko? What role will the memories of the lovers of 1945 play?
From the outline it’s clear that there is a potent mixture here of romance, music, comedy, the melodrama of families and the drama of competing interests of hoteliers, local councillors etc. Who was the girl left behind in 1945 and what became of her? How can the band become ‘authentic’ – what kind of music will they play?
Cape No. 7 was something of a surprise hit on a small scale but once it started to contact with local audiences it began to grow ‘legs’ staying in cinemas for three months and making 10 times the production cost. Later the film won several international prizes in East Asia and opened successfully in Hong Kong. A release in the PRC (mainland China) was delayed and eventually a severely cut version of the film was released. (It has been argued that the film was seen as ‘Japanised’.)
As a ‘local film’, I found the opening half hour intriguing but slightly difficult to follow as I didn’t easily pick up all the clues about the diversity of the population and the inter-family disputes that fuel the melodrama. This feeling continued for a while and I realised that I was engaged and appreciative of the filmmaking but still not totally understanding the complexities of the narrative. It was only in the last third of what is a long film (by rom-com standards) at 133 minutes that I felt fully in control of my own reading. Now, looking back over the narrative I can make sense of most of the actions and I have fully enjoyed the experience. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about Taiwanese culture as well as having a good time. The films mix of ingredients attracted what the Hollywood studios refer to as the four quadrants of young and old, male and female (the film was released by Disney in Taiwan).
There is an appeal to nostalgia, especially in relation to the period under Japanese occupation and the mix of experiences related to those times. Popular musical forms are popular throughout East Asia and these must also have been important (a soundtrack album and a very successful DVD release followed). Perhaps most important of all, here was a chance to celebrate the success of a local popular film after decades of domination by first Hong Kong and then Hollywood imports. Having broken records, Cape No. 7 was then overtaken by later local hits such as You Are the Apple of My Eye. I’m grateful to Felicia Chan and the Chinese Film Forum in Manchester for introducing me to both films.
(Cape No. 7 is released on a Region 2 DVD by Flynn Entertainment.)