Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 02, 2014 11:20 am 
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A harried grown son gradually becoming a mensch

Cherchez Hortense/Look for Hortense, Pascal Bonitzer's busy, meandering, oddball French film, was included in Lincoln Center's eclectic winter series "Film Comment Selects" precisely because it doesn't fit in anywhere. It was a movie that virtually went straight to video. It opened in September 2012 ("La Rentrée, best time to open a film), got decent reviews, and was forgotten. But someone at the Film Society's house publication found and rescued it. In his series survey A.O. Scott of the Times said it's "an exemplary Film Comment selection in that it is a solid, satisfying movie that might too easily have been overlooked." Indeed, but Scott says nothing more, because it's hard to know what to say.

On the surface, Cherchez Hortense is an example of polished French bourgeois cinema. You have the beautiful interiors, nice locations, cool people, cafés, cigarettes. In this case it's a world above all notable for its elegant disarray, comfortably inhabited by familiar and well-loved actors from France's incestuous insider cinema world. The central couple is falling apart. She is distraught and unfaithful. He is haggard and has lost his self respect. Their little boy Noé (Marin Orcand Tourrès), curses and leaves the cap off the toothpaste tube. But they live in the middle of Paris, in a spacious apartment whose colors delicately harmonize. A bemused sadness should fill one as one walks out of the cinema.

It is the present day. Damien (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a professor of Chinese civilization at a high level business school, lives with his longtime companion Iva (Kristin Scott Thomas), a theater director, and Noé. The love has gone out of their relationship, lost in dull routine. One day, Iva persuades Damien to intercede with his distant father Sébastien (Claude Rich), a high level official with the Council of State, to save an undocumented foreign resident of mixed Balkan origins called Zorica (AKA Aurore, Isabelle Carré) from possible arrest or deportation that could happen now she's divorced from her French husband. This risky mission plunges Damien into a series of events that turn his life upside down. So the theme of Pascal Bonitzer's new film is stated. At the center of every scene is Jean-Pierre Bacri, an actor who wears exhaustion and despair like an Armani suit. Look at him and the glamorous ever-beautiful aging woman who is Kristin Scott Thomas and you'll see the still-strong preference of traditional French cinema that the women be lovely and the men hideous. The key relationship is the fanciful one between Damien and Aurore, who grew up in France and looks and sounds French (and is French, since the actress is).

To begin with, Antoine (Arthur Igual), the handsome young lead in her new play, makes a pass at Iva in a car. Guess where that leads. Sébastien is a pig, cutting Damien off at every turn. Worse, he turns out to be gay, as revealed by his saccharine interactions with the Japanese waiter, Satoshi (Masahiro Kashiwagi). If you remember anything from this film it will be the bland, smiling stonewalling of Sébastien: Claude Rich, along with Scott Thomas and Bacri, is a French cinematic monument.

Damien has a small group of cronies who hang out at a local bar and play chess. When one of them, Lobatch (Jackie Berroyer) turns suicidal Damien is the one who goes to see him and take away the pistol he's nursing.

Damien's strength is that he keeps on and that, after a lot of lying, he tells the truth -- to Aurore herself -- about his failure to guarantee her security in France. In the end it doesn't matter. Damien is pursued by his own good fortune. The "Hortense" of the title (Philippe Duclos) is the VIP whom Sébastien refuses to approach about Aurore. In the event, Damien, slowly becoming a mensch after all, goes to Hortense by himself. He, like the head of the police station when Damien gets arrested to protect Aurore, defers to Damien because of his expertise about China -- the place where world power is going. This is as if to say all this French stuff is irrelevant. But it still matters.

But does it matter? Does this film matter? It does if you admire what one critic, for the weekly Positif, called "comfortable, Parisian, leftist French comedy." And this is a rather special genre, one found, of course, only in France. The main faces may be familiar, but they provide nothing but class all the way. Some of these people one would enjoy watching read from a telephone book. Bonitzer has been a Rivette, Ruiz and Téchiné collaborator, mostly in the writing category, as well as a former critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, but this is his seventh film as a director. Agnès de Sacy is the cowriter.

Cherchez Hortense, 101 mins., debuted at Venice out of competition 31 August 2012. It opened in in France in September 2012 (Allociné press rating 3.5). Screened for this review as part of Film Comment Selects at Lincoln Center where it showed 18 and 25 February 2014.

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