I’d heard mixed reports about this film. I’ve seen some but not all of the François Ozon films released in the UK and the last two I saw, Potiche (2010) and Dans la maison (2012), were a hoot. This new film promised something rather different, being adapted from a Ruth Rendell short story. Perhaps it is a cliché but ‘continental’ adaptations of Ruth Rendell often seem much more serious/sophisticated than UK adaptations. I still remember with pleasure Almodovar’s Live Flesh (Spain 1997), Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (France 1995) and Claude Miller’s Betty Fisher and Other Stories (France 2001) – and there are more I haven’t seen.
The promotion of this film seems quite coy in the way it tries to avoid ‘spoilers‘ but to say anything sensible about the film I have to reveal the central issue. (So be warned, if you want complete surprise, DON’T READ ON.) The film begins with a stunning opening sequence, virtually without dialogue, in which we see the funeral of a young woman, Laure, and the eulogy from her best friend Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) who pledges to look out for the widowed David (Romain Duris) and the couple’s daughter Lucie who is only a few months old. The opening also gives us flashbacks to the intense relationship between Claire and Laure that began when they were small children. A few weeks after the funeral Claire visits David and is taken aback to find him dressed as a woman and feeding the baby from a bottle. He explains that by wearing a dress belonging to his wife, he is able to calm the baby. The narrative then begins to explore the relationship between Claire and David – and to deal with the complication of Claire’s husband Gilles. Things don’t quite work out as some audiences might suspect and I’ll leave it there.
Like Pedro Almodóvar, Ozon is a gay man adapting a female novelist who was herself prepared to explore all kinds of characters and relationships. Ruth Rendell is generally thought of as a crime writer but she also explored the psychology of unusual relationships. I wasn’t familiar with the short story ‘The New Girlfriend’ but I’m certainly interested in finding it now. The narrative that Ozon constructs sometimes plays like Hitchcock (especially when the score by Philippe Rombi kicks in). I’ve also seen reviews that reference Douglas Sirk. This is certainly a melodrama and it takes place in the milieu of the upper middle class. All That Heaven Allows (1955) feels like an appropriate reference. At other times the tone is comic and I also found the film to be intensely erotic in parts.
Visiting IMDB, I note both big supporters and major detractors. Two ‘users’ claim this is the worst film they’ve ever seen. I’ll put my cards on the table. I loved every minute of the film. Romain Duris is for me a major star of French cinema. I realise now that I have seen Anaïs Demoustier in several other films but up until now I hadn’t really ‘noticed’ her. Now I feel foolishly in love. What is interesting is that the film places her almost in the masculine role – she’s ‘on top’ in sexual encounters and she generally wears the trousers when David is in drag. Personally I preferred her this way – or at least with her freckles on display when ‘Virginia’ (David) is in full warpaint. You’ll gather from this that Ozon is ‘playing’ with gender identities big time. Sometimes his storytelling teeters on the edge of farce but he is in control and he’s well served by great performances from the three lead actors.
Nuff said. This is a melodrama par excellence.
A good trailer:
This is the film that I have enjoyed most in the cinema this year. I found it compelling entertainment for two reasons. One was the casting of Romain Duris and Déborah François and the other was the use of costume, colour, lighting, graphics and music. Duris and François are my favourite francophone actors of the current crop and that might explain why I am so taken with a film which too many critics seem to have dismissed as simply ‘conventional’. Philip French has announced his retirement from the Observer but in one of his last published reviews he gave the film the full works and found many interesting connections – whereas his colleague on the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw, dismissed it with hardly a second glance. That’s a big mistake because there is plenty to see.
Budgeted at a whopping €14.7 million, Populaire has been inevitably linked with The Artist and Mad Men because of its meticulously presented period detail. It shares The Artist‘s female star Bérénice Bejo (in a small but important role) and its cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman and it’s set in 1958-9 with the same attention to period offered by Mad Men. But that’s where the connection to the TV series ends – and the lazy hype perpetrated by distributors has arguably damaged the film’s box office. Think instead an hommage to the American sex comedies of the 1950s with Duris as Cary Grant or Jack Lemmon and François as an amalgam of all those greats such as Doris Day and before her Judy Holliday – but also decidedly Déborah François. This feeling of borrowing from Hollywood is underlined by the clever use of colours and lighting – like the bright colours of early Technicolor. The music is also well chosen with a mix of French and Anglo-American popular styles. There is a real sense of that keen French interest in American modernity associated with the need for speed – the typing competition is an excellent vehicle for this. Populaire is the first feature by director Régis Roinsard who had the original idea and co-wrote the script. It has its flaws and weaknesses but overall it works extremely well. Of course, a romcom/social comedy set in the 1950s raises questions about gender and we’ll come to those later. First though a brief outline.
Rose is a young woman bored by live in her Normandy village where her father owns the village store. When insurance agent Louis advertises for a secretary in a nearby town she applies for the post and gets it – because she is pretty and Louis is a letch, we assume. In fact she is hopeless as a secretary but she can type like a whirlwind. Louis keeps her on and begins to train her for the typing speed contests which were apparently all the rage in the late 1950s. From then on the narrative structure is highly conventional with Rose going on to contest the ‘World Championship’ in New York. Along the way there are a couple of innovations and some tricky decisions over what to show/hint at in terms of offering what might be seen as nostalgia to a contemporary audience. (The ‘Populaire’ is a model of typewriter manufactured by the Japy company of Paris who become Rose’s sponsors when she wins the national title.)
The romcom demands that Louis at first doesn’t recognise his own desire for Rose, allowing him to be quite determined and distanced in his ‘use’ of her typing skills to achieve the success as a trainer that eluded him as an athlete himself. He is that familiar figure, the man in his late thirties running the family business but feeling that he has not succeeded. Rose loves him from the start but is too proud to show it, going along with his madcap training schemes to please him. The narrative material that Roinsard attempts to work with here includes a backstory that involves Louis as member of the Résistance in the latter stages of the war – which in turn led to his separation from his childhood sweetheart (Bejo), now married to an American who parachuted onto her parents’ farm in June 1944. For me, none of this worked, partly I think because despite his many talents I just couldn’t see Duris in the Résistance – but perhaps the fault is mine, there is no reason why a man looking good in a sharp suit in 1958 shouldn’t have a wartime past. But the back story does lead into some potentially darker sides to the drama. Allied to this the sudden appearance of Louis’ family at Christmas provides one of the highlights of the film.
In the end, the film stands or falls for me on the performance of Ms François and she is formidable. She has the ability to move convincingly from village shop assistant to flirtatious romcom heroine, from childlike student to steely contestant and from clumsy office worker to assertive and confident young woman. In all of these roles she is convincing and she dominates the screen. The criticisms of the film’s ‘sexist’ and ‘gendered’ view claims that the film is conservative and backward looking and this is linked by some commentators to the inclusion of one sex scene and one ‘gratuitous’ ‘wet blouse’ moment – see the image at the head of the post. In the UK the film was given a 12A certificate which seems about right – but in the US it seems to be heading for ‘Restricted’. The sex certainly is an issue for a film which I’ve suggested is attempting to work like those 1950s Hollywood comedies with their Hays Code approved scripts. A similar problem comes up when characters appear to be speaking ‘out of time’ – e.g. with references to smoking and when Rose cries “but this is 1959” (and therefore she can be a ‘liberated’ young woman). I think, on balance Populaire gets these decisions right. I also think that, like Doris Day and Judy Holliday before her, Déborah François is capable of taking the script away from its ideological implications of a submissive and restricted female underclass. Rose is a strong woman who works hard to get what she wants, standing up to whoever gets in her way. The narrative does validate the skills of the typist and it underlines the fact that secretarial work was one of the ways by which women were able to become independent and to establish themselves in the office before moving into a wider range of white collar jobs. The film has suffered because of some of the negative reviews. I hope more audiences are able to see it and enjoy it for what it is – a conventional romcom with great performances that recalls some of the under-rated popular films of the 1950s. It has already created a buzz among the collectors of antique typewriters!
And if you do enjoy this, can I recommend Déborah François in the generically very different La tourneuse de pages (The Pageturner) which nonetheless has some narrative similarities?
Watching this film was an unusual experience. At times it felt like a character-driven drama and at other times a high quality genre film. It wasn’t until later that I realised that I’d seen the previous film by director Eric Lartigau, an interesting twist on the romcom Prête-moi ta main (France 2006) titled I Do in English. I enjoyed that film and I think I enjoyed The Big Picture – certainly I was engrossed by it and was surprised when the ending came.
It is difficult to outline the plot without spoilers, but I’ll try. The English title isn’t immediately helpful. The French title translates as something like the ‘The Man Who Wanted to Live His Own Life’ and this is more useful. Paul Exbon (Romain Duris) is a highly successful lawyer running a top practice in Paris with his older partner Anne (Catherine Deneuve). He has wealth, an attractive wife and two small children who he adores – but all is not well at home or in his head. Then a series of events overturns his comfortable world. The only way out seems to be to flee France for the Adriatic and to adopt a new identity. The ‘instigator’ of all this trouble is a man Paul detests, an unsuccessful professional photographer who taunts Paul because the lawyer only takes photographs as a hobby – he doesn’t have the guts to go out and try it as a living even though he has the talent to do so. So when Paul flees he attempts to become a ‘real’ photographer. But his talent shines through and when journals and galleries start to take an interest he knows his identity will be uncovered – thus the English title, I guess. (The photographs used in the film were taken by various Magnum photographers I think.)
The main factor that attracted me to the film was the presence of Romain Duris in the lead and as usual he gives a great performance, more than justifying his billing. I don’t really understand how he does it. This time he is in curly hair, stubble and generally dishevelled chic mode – but still with the Cuban heels. Why is that chipmunk-like face with its cheesy grin so manipulative? I don’t know, but Duris is a natural talent and you can’t really keep your eyes off him.
The film is an adaptation of a novel by Douglas Kennedy. He appears to be an American writer domiciled mainly in Europe where his reputation is high in France. His 2007 The Woman in the Fifth has also been adapted as a thriller, this time by Pawel Pawlikowski with Kristin Scott-Thomas and Ethan Hawke and scheduled for its première at Venice in September. I think that we are going to hear a lot more about him. (His earlier novel The Dead Heart was adapted as Welcome to Whoop Whoop, a British-Australian comedy which suffered from the injury to its director Stephan Elliott in 1997.) Kennedy has also written travel literature, something of an advantage for writers of ‘international thrillers’. The Big Picture (which was the original title of the novel) introduces the coastline of Montenegro and in particular the heritage city of Kotor and the ship repair yards at Bijela. I found these fascinating and they give this film a different feel.
I think what marks this film out as something more than another generic ‘international thriller’ is a tight script, effective cinematography and editing and the performance of Romain Duris. It’s a thriller in the sense that an unsettling tone runs throughout and I was genuinely concerned about what the central character was going to do. I didn’t read too much about it beforehand and the two moments of violence are both handled well – I found them unsettling and shocking. Critics are referring to it as an ‘existential thriller’ and this is where the confusion arises. In this interesting review, the British trailer for the film is accused of making it look like an art film. Overall The Big Picture is definitely worth exploring for an evening’s entertainment and the kind of well-made film that boosts the reputation of the French industry. In France it opened at No 2 in the chart grossing over $3 million but failing to dislodge the blockbuster Little White Lies – that’s a shame because it’s a far better film than Guillaume Canet’s ‘comedy’. If I have one complaint about The Big Picture it’s that Catherine Deneuve is on screen for only a few short scenes and Neils Arestrup similarly has only a brief time to impress. The other factor that’s getting some interest is the score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine. I wasn’t sure that his worked in the early part of the film, but by the end I was on side. A final piece of trivia – the director looks a little like Duris as he’s presented in the film and he’s married to Marina Foïs who plays Sarah Exben, Paul’s wife.
The hit of the year in France, Heartbreaker is slowly dying in UK cinemas on a limited release (around 60 prints). The same audiences who have shunned it in multiplexes, presumably because they would have to read subtitles, will no doubt flock to the inevitable Hollywood remake. C’est la vie as the English character in the film says – the loss is theirs. I would be very surprised if Hollywood can serve up anything as funny and sexy as this. There is no American actor I can think of who could compete with Romain Duris.
It’s a compliment of sorts that Hollywood couldn’t make anything more glamorous or more slick. This is a very conventional romcom. Duris is Alex, who works as a professional to break up engagements that somebody (usually a parent) doesn’t want to see reaching the altar. Supported by his sister and her husband, Alex sets up extravagant cons that seduce the women targeted. But he has principles – he only works on women who are unhappy in their relationships (although, of course, they don’t always know that they are unhappy). Then one day he meets Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) and you can guess the rest.
I’ve written about Romain Duris in the romcoms of Cédric Klapisch and in dramas such as The Beat That My Heart Skipped. I wasn’t totally convinced by the Klapisch roles, but I rate him highly. The real surprise in the film was Vanessa Paradis who I thought was excellent – very beautiful, sexy and smart. Life with Johnny Depp can’t be too stressful. The other two principal cast members are also very good (Julie Ferrier as the sister Mélanie and François Damiens as her husband Marc). Monaco (and Morocco) look great. I laughed a lot and even cried at the end – perfect entertainment.
The UK trailer: