Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 27, 2015 2:43 pm 
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Father and son

As Jérôme, the harried store manager who gets let go, has his wife walk out on him, and has to pay more attention to his tennis-talented 11-year-old son Ugo (Charles Mérienne), Olivier Gourmet indeed delivers one of his reliably heartfelt and authentic everyman performances. But that isn't enough to hold together a film that seems too much like it's falling apart, like its protagonist's life. It becomes a little too hard to see what this is about.

What's appealing about Stéphane Demoustier's first feature is the natural, no-nonsense relationship between father and son, which turns out to be central to the story even if unresolved. Charles Mérienne, the boy, indeed can play tennis, of course. He has a focus about him that doesn't seem faked or actor-y at all. Man and boy scuffle and spar verbally with each other in ways that seem satisfyingly not meant to make any point. When Jérôme talks frankly at home with a friend about what's gone wrong with his wife (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), he does so right in front of Ugo, and Ugo simply listens. Yes, Ugo is talented. But Jérôme, understandably distracted by a need to find a new livelihood and perhaps not too realistic about solutions, isn't giving Ugo the support he needs all the time. Early on, he makes him lose a match due to lateness because he detours to scout for a store location. Besides, there's another boy in the program who's probably more talented and therein lies the problem for Ugo. But is this film about the father, the son, or the relationship between them? It can't seem to decide.

There are problems with the cast that get in the way of this film's being memorable. It may be asking too much for an 11-year-old who is mainly an athlete involved in a particularly obsessive sport, but young Mérienne, though authentic and no-nonsense, is a bit blank. Hisa face is striking in closeup though, and he might do very well if given future roles. Great as Olivier Gourmet is in the Dardennes films and plenty of others, there is some question whether he is suitable for a lead role -- Pierre Schöller's terrific The Minister/L'Exercise de l'Étât being a very notable exception. An actor like Gourmet needs remarkable material to truly shine. As for Bruni Tedeschi, who has had one of her best roles recently in Carlo Virzì's Human Capital/Il capitale umano (recently released in the US), she rarely impresses in minor roles and has little to do here, even though she gets two emotional moments.

Some of the material is solid. It's specific to today's economic crisis and is knowledgeable about retail sales, employment, athletics, and the pathways to a pro tennis career. The socioeconomic aspect helps explains involvement of the Dardenne brothers in the production.

Maybe I'm being too hard on this film, which Peter Debruge at Venice described in Variety as "an imperfect debut" but "revealing new psychological layers nearly every quarter-hour" and introducing "an impressive new talent." The material, whose late reel surprises Debruge points out are based on a news story, certainly is unusual and unfolds in an unexpected manner. Stéphane Demoustier is a name to keep in mind.

40-Love/Terre battue, 95 mins. The French title refers to the clay court of the Roland Garros French open site; Ugo is hoping to be sent to train there. The film debuted at Venice; half a dozen festivals. French theatrical release 17 December 2014 to very mixed reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.1): some appreciated the novelty and the social commentary; others found it conventional, and one writer noted the tennis matches were very badly filmed (the camera tends to focus only on one player at a time). Screened for this review as part of the FSLC/UniFrance-sponsored Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at the Walter Reade Theater and the IFC Center in New York in March 2015, its North American premiere.

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