Thursday, March 28, 2013

Three French films

Macaroni & Cheese (Les Coquillettes) (Sophie Letourneur — France) 75 minutes
Under the Rainbow (Au Bout du conte) (Agnès Jaoui — France) 112 minutes
Un p’tit gars de Ménilmontant (Alain Minier — France) 88 minutes

Faced with the prospect of wading through the booze-filled August nights at the Locarno film festival in 2011 when presenting her short film Le Marin masqué, Sophie Letourneur decided to shoot a film about wading through the booze-filled nights at the very same festival. The director and her friends and collaborators Camille Genaud and  Carole Le Page play versions of themselves, as do several other minor figures in the French film industry, who treat Locarno — a poor man’s Cannes — as a prime excuse to get their rocks off. It sounds like it ought to be terribly self-indulgent but Les coquillettes (the title comes from the French for elbow macaroni) is shot through with enough droll self-deprecation to interest the casual viewer. All three take on roles of varying humiliation — Letourneur is obsessed with French pretty-boy actor Louis Garrel and is more interested in tracking him down and hooking up with him than in showcasing her own film; Camille drunkenly pursues a stuffed-shirt of a hipster film critic, while Carole vocally bemoans her own not getting laid in over a year, and is determined to break her duck with a minor Italian actor.

The tale is recounted by the trio some time later, with inevitable differences, after helping Sophie move into a new flat, as they eat the eponymous coquillettes. It is a film that wears itself very lightly but it nonetheless never seems inconsequential; it is also sharply-scripted with some very funny gags, and has the good taste to be amiably brief. The female leads are all likeable — attractive in a girl-you-know-type way — especially Genaud, whose daffy social resilience is as charming as it is touching. The repartee among the three of them is as good as the dialogue in the second part of Quentin Tarantino’s Deathproof (a splendid piece of writing Tarantino himself did not get due credit for). It is impressive how Letourneur and all involved managed to put together a film amid all the brouhaha of a summer film festival. The organisers of Locarno were sufficiently impressed to invite them back to screen it in 2012. Let’s hope the ladies managed to let their hair down a little more this time.

Au bout du conte, Agnès Jaoui’s fourth film as director held a particular interest for me as my local café was commandeered last spring for one afternoon to double up as a little bistro during its filming. La Pétanque was renamed ‘La Licorne’ (‘The Unicorn’); the fictional title reflects the fairytale references that litter the film, and which is hinted at in its punning French title. Agathe Bonitzer plays Laura, the young daughter of a millionaire businessman who falls for an impoverished young music student, Sandro, a tryst supposedly predicted by a clairvoyant she has been seeing.  Sandro’s distant father Pierre (Jaoui’s regular co-writer and former partner Jean-Pierre Bacri), in the meantime, has just buried his own father, a death he admits has left him barely moved. However, a fortune teller at the funeral reminds him that the date of his death that she had predicted four decades earlier is fast approaching, sending this misanthropic driving instructor into an unlikely existential tizzy.

Laura’s aunt Marianne (Jaoui), an actor-cum-drama-teacher is just recovering from a failed marriage while her ten-year-old daughter takes refuge in the Bible (a joke that would be particularly outré for the film’s intended lefty secular audience). Meanwhile, her neighbour Maxim Wolf (Benjamin Biolay), a sinister-looking music impresario, is taking a healthy interest in Sandro’s first symphony and a rather less healthy one in Laura. Like Jaoui and Bacri’s previous films, Au bout du conte is light but well-crafted, overcoming the obligatory dramatic obstacles on the way before resolving itself in typically Shakespearean comedy fashion.

Jaoui and Bacri, who began collaborating on stage plays in the late 1980s, before graduating to writing screenplays for Alain Resnais and Cédric Klapisch, produce films that are unabashedly middle-brow but unpretentious, the sort of works that English-speakers tend to call ‘very French’ (it must be said though that what qualifies as middle-brow in France often occupies a place a few rungs higher when it travels to an Anglophone country). They are rarely very challenging but they are entertaining and the presence of Bacri alone is worth the price of admission. He plays more or less the same character in every role he is cast — in films by other writers and directors too — a neurotic, crabby, bilious middle-aged French petit-bourgeois. He can send ripples of laughter through a French audience with just the moaning advance of a complaint; half his on-screen dialogue consists of shrugs, sighs and perpetually incredulous rolling eyes. He is very much the sort of French man whom it is vastly more entertaining to observe at a distance than tolerate in social situations. And he provides a bracingly cranky counterpoint to films, like this one, that err a little too closely on the side of complaisance much of the time.

Also filmed in my neighbourhood is Un p'tit gars de Ménilmontant, a crime drama directed by local boy, Alain Minier, whose first feature it is. It is a strange sensation to see onscreen many of the locations you have walked past only moments earlier on the way to your local cinema, and even weirder to see the vacant lot behind your building appear during a scene in which someone gets offed.

There is plenty of local colour in this film, in which former bank-robber Jo (cop turned actor/director Olivier Marchal) returns to his neighbourhood, the titular Ménilmontant (an old working-class part of eastern Paris) after 15 years in prison, only to find it a changed place. Young thugs who were in nappies when he went inside now rule the roost and he discovers that his ex-partner and the 14-year-old son he has never met are now living in a comfortable upwardly-mobile set-up with a mild-mannered schoolteacher. The gentrification of the area is further embodied by his old partner-in-crime Makhlouf (Franco-Algerian comedian Smaïn), who has gone straight and now runs a neighbourhood bistro. Jo enlists his help to change a large sum of old francs he had stashed before going into prison into euros but a gang of gypsies whose cousins he has killed are out for revenge.

It is just as well I live in Ménilmontant because there is precious little in this film to interest anyone who doesn’t know the locale. The film never strays beyond the most tired of clichés — the taciturn recidivist, the hooker with a heart of gold, a son whose effeteness must perforce be hammered home by having him do ballet. It is also littered with some bizarre editing and some very annoying stylistic tics, such as a shot, repeated three times, of different characters turning to the camera and pointing a gun the moment they get their hands on one. Ménilmontant may not be quite the picturesque neighbourhood it was when photographed by Willy Ronis  — the old tenements were torn down in the 1960s to make way for high-rise social housing — but its hills, escarpments and dimly-lit staircases are still charmingly atmospheric. Minier does his best to capture them with his gently-lit Scope photography but he can never quite shake off his directing-for-TV sensibility. Ménilmontant’s streets are not quite so mean as they appear in Minier’s film but, to someone who walks down them on a daily basis, they could definitely be a lot more cinematic than this.