La fille du 14 juillet (Antonin Peretjatko – France) 88 minutes
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater – USA) 109 minutes
The opening scene of Antonin Peretjatko’s madcap comedy is one of the funniest set-pieces I have seen in the last couple of years: former President Nicolas Sarkozy inspects the troops and greets dignitaries at the official celebrations on the French national holiday of the title (only foreigners call it ‘Bastille Day’). Sarkozy is shown all jittery in sped-up motion, with comic music accompaniment. Lest Peretjatko be accused of political favouritism, Sarkozy’s successor François Hollande is then portrayed in the same light; we also see tanks edging in and out of position with geometrical punctiliousness – it’s good that someone is ridiculing France’s militaristic holiday celebrations, which are little more than a fancier, less dogmatic version of North Korea’s.
After the promising start though, La fille du 14 juillet is only fitfully funny. The hero of the film, Hector (Grégoire Tachnakian), a young slacker working as a museum guard, is besotted with Truquette (meaning 'Thingamijiguette', played by Vilmala Pons), a pretty woman whom he encounters while working on the 14th of July. Hector’s friend, Pator (Vincent Macaigne) has the idea of inviting her and a friend along with them on holiday in the south of France. Unfortunately, the friend’s licentious Benny Hill-esque brother insists on tagging along and intends on doing all he can to get his way with Truquette first.
There are some good gags here and there, such as an amusing scene in a dole office where the absurdity of French bureaucracy is laid bare, and the central trope where la rentrée, the French return to work and school after the holidays, is brought forward one month, in response to the economic crisis, something that sows panic amid the film's characters. The film has the free-wheeling air of the New Wave and later French films, such as early Bertrand Blier, but underneath the playfulness lies a certain piety, and it soon becomes clear the film is a rather annoying homage to its forebears. It also reminds you of one of the less appealing features of the New Wave – the dolly bird portrayal of many women; Vilmala Pons doe-eyed, yé-yé girly Truquette is worse still – she is one part Anna Karina, three parts Zooey Deschanel. Some might see La fille du 14 juillet as a riff on classic French slapstick; to me, though, for all its zaniness, it looked tired and hackneyed.
Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy return for the third instalment of the films charting the relationship between Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy), who first met in Vienna in the 1994 film, Before Sunrise. That film was a charming talky piece that brought Linklater’s goofy philosophising to an international context – a Generation-X Brief Encounter. The pair were re-united ten years later in Before Sunset, when Céline tracks down the now-married Jesse at one of his book signings in Paris. Before Sunset was clunky in comparison to its predecessor, possibly because of the pretensions of its older characters, and it made heavy play of the prevailing tension between the US and France, in the wake of the Iraq war. Delpy has, in the meantime, turned director and copied the formula for her own brand of particularly lugubrious comedy (2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York).
Before Midnight finds the pair now married, having made the fateful choice following their reunion in Paris. They have twin daughters and Jesse is at loggerheads with his ex-wife, who, none-too-surprisingly, is doing her best to impede his relationship with his fourteen-year-old son, Hank (Séamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, from Moonrise Kingdom). The film opens with Hank and Jesse bidding farewell at the airport in Greece, where they have been holidaying. It’s an extended scene and is Linklater at his best – sharp dialogue and the same eye for social awkwardness that has marked his work since Slacker and Dazed and Confused. Once Hank is on the plane, Jesse returns to Céline and the kids and the next long scene, where they drive back to their holiday home, is equally good, bringing us up to speed on what has passed since the last film.
Both Hawke and Delpy have aged considerably in the past few years, the former looking scraggly, like Chris Cooper, the latter, morphing into something resembling Hilary Clinton. The film loses its way when it strays into holiday bucolic, with the guests trading idle banter with their host, Greek writer Patrick (played by Zorba the Greek cinematographer Walter Lasally) and his family. It is sunny and carefree, light years from the edgy cinema of Athina Rachel Tsangari, director of Attenberg and producer of Dogtooth and Alps, and who plays one of the hosts, Ariadne, here. There is little sense of the economic crisis crippling Greece, referred to only once in the entire film.
To his credit, Linklater knows that films about holidays are uninteresting unless something goes wrong, like L’Avventura, About Elly and Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, which is explicitly referenced at one point by Céline. The simmering discontent in the marriage boils over in the second half of the film, when an intended relaxing stay at a luxury hotel becomes the backdrop to a protracted argument of vicious mutual recrimination between the couple. The argument, which stems from Jesse’s wish to move to Chicago to be closer to Hank (and which Céline is having none of), introduces darkness into the trilogy for the first time and severely undermines the youthful romance of the first two films. These scenes are a mixed bag – they have a maddening energy but it is difficult to have too much sympathy with such a dislikable pair; Jesse is sanctimonious and cruel while Céline is insufferably smug (as is Delpy in many of her films). Hawke and Delpy collaborated once again with Linklater on the screenplay, after their Oscar nomination for Before Sunset, but the dynamic at play here is far from the heightened claustrophobia of Cassavetes or Bergman. The ending is sufficiently ambiguous to leave open the chance for a fourth film. Before Midnight recaptures some of the spark of the first film in the trilogy but it is an uneven effort. Maybe taking Jesse and Céline out of picturesque locales might be a better idea for Linklater to consider in a future film.