Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 27, 2012 11:09 am 
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Taming a ball-buster, sort of

In this utterly conventional French bourgeois comedy, Isabelle Huppert plays a role she can do in her sleep, the haughty, contemptuous dame who has just a tiny bit of heart underneath the cold façade. Into the life of Agathe (Huppert) and her longtime companion François (André Dusollier), a wealthy publisher, comes Patrick (Benoît Poelvoorde), an earthy Belgian handyman living out out of a truck with his son, Tony (Corentin Devroey). Their pretty, long-haired son Adrien (Donatien Suner) and Tony are schoolmates and become pals. Tony seems good to have around when he turns out to be brilliant, while Adrien is a lousy student. Then Patrick worms his way into their lives, palling around with the malleable François and wangling a big construction job in their fancy flat near the Jardin du Luxembourg, which naturally he winds up trashing. And of course Patrick winds up in bed with both the maid and Agathe, and she and François save Tony from being kicked out of the school and put into foster care for being homeless. For an American audience this movie seems ridden with cliches, but the way it satirizes upper middle class French snobbism -- and the crudity of Belgian plebes -- serves for a French audience as worthwhile social commentary, and the sitcom-y laughs do flow pretty smoothly. Production values are typically impeccable and the cast is excellent -- but you can't help wishing the effort had been devoted to material with more depth.

The elegantly insufferable Agathe Novic is essentially the role Huppert played in Me and My Sister, with Catherine Frot as the "nice" country sister, Huppert as the sophisticated city bitch who bends a bit in the end. In that one her unfortunate hubby was François Berléand, who was also paired with her in Jacquot's The School of Flesh and Chabrol's Comedy of Power (sometimes the French cast list seems pretty small). This time it's the veteran André Dusollier, so often paired with Alain Renais muse Sabine Azéma, as he was in Étienne Chatiliez's more original bourgeois domestic comedy, Tanguy. And -- remember about the small cast list -- Tanguy featured Éric Berger as the blandly maddening son approaching thirty who won't move out of their posh Parisian apartment. Berger appears here as one of Huppert's underlings. She's a gallerist so bitchy all she does is abuse her employees and reject everything they do. She won't allow a white undercoat on a wall that will be painted black to set off a Mapplethorpe photograph because she thinks discerning clients will detect the white under three coats of black. It's like the princess and the pea.

Most of the attention focuses on Poelvoorde, whom Anne Fontaine cast as the rich aristo Étienne Balsan who kept Coco Chanel as his mistress in her better, but still underwhelming previous film Coco Before Chanel. Poelvoorde is the engine and the energy of this movie, and he skates nicely on the edge between handyman and seducer. In shirtsleeves he's a plebe, but if he puts on a dark jacket he can plausibly join Agathe for a drink. He keeps a stream of expletive-laced and sexual chatter going that François seems half charmed by and Agathe is too crusty to acknowledge. Its outlandishness is of course funnier in French.

This whole movie is at three removes from the plausible, but least likely is François's sudden liaison with Julie (Virginie Efira), Patrick's social worker, who's young and pretty and exaggeratedly New Age, an arborial hobbyist who takes François on a weekend "date" climbing giant trees. More improbable things happen to fill out a plot that sees Tony moving in with Adrien and Agathe actually marrying Patrick (so much for marriage) to save his son's local resident status. Episodes in Belgium visiting Patrick's brother who runs a sort of porno carwash, and back in Paris where a photo by conceptual art photorapher Hiroshi Sugimoto (who appears in person, mouthing art banalities about color) gets phallicly vandalized, are best forgotten but I fear may haunt me forever. In fact this movie already seemed so familiar I'm not sure if I saw it in Paris or just saw trailers of it there. Note: Fontaine's film before Coco, The Girl From Monaco (R-V 2009), utilized actors of the caliber of Fabrice Luchini, Roschdy Zem and Stéphane Audran for a busy, ultimately lackluster comedy. It's looking as if Fontaine's best work may be behind her.

Reviewed as part of the San Francisco Film Society's October 2012 series, French Cinema Now. Mon pire cauchemar, 103 min., showed at Toronto in Sept. 2011 and opened Nov. 9 of that year in Paris, with decent French reviews (Allociné press rating: 3.0). It opened in limited US release Oct. 19, 2012, but here the reviews have been less nfavorable (Metacritic: 42): Stephen Holden panned it in the NY Times.

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