Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 20, 2020 8:50 am 
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Opposites attract, as always

The Bare Necessity is translator's word-play: it must refer to the revolutionary nudists who populate the background of this sublimely bizarre rom-com, the inventive feature film debut of French director-writer Erwan Le Duc. The star is the admired actor, Swann Arlaud, a slim, ageless man with a fine mane of now graying hair and a sensitive, endlessly expressive face. He won a César for Best Supporting Actor in Ozon's extraordinary film about pedophile priests, By the Grace of God (2018), and was moving as the star of the story of a struggling small dairy farmer driven to deception, Petit Paysan (2017).

This, by contrast, is a fun movie, one whose eccentricities would wear you out if they weren't so endearing in this initially triple-sec comedy, which sweetens toward the end. Swann Arlaud plays Captain of the gendarmerie Pierre Perdrix. The name means "partridge," and it's appropriate. He's sedate and well-behaved and unadventurous. This 37-year-old bachelor's law enforcement work and life in a provincial backwater town is safe and routine. It takes Juliette Webb (Maud Wyler), a wild young woman who comes into his police station after her car has been stolen by the local nudist gang, to push Perdrix out of his rut and into amour. The film modifies its dry sense of humor and reticence about romance to transform, finally, into a love story. Pierre must learn to see the value of breaking out of his safe cocoon and Juliette must grasp the limitations of her ideal of the emancipated woman.

The film is great at people, including the staff of the little rural police station. (It all happens in the French region of Vosges, though this will mean little to American viewers. It's summertime: the film's lovely warm photography is something we can all appreciate.) The cops are a quiet, friendly crew. You wonder why there should be so many of them. But these radical nudists are really on the rampage. They hide away in the Arcadian preserve of the Vosges forest but frequently leave it to do what they call "culling" - rushing upon some innocent clothes-wearer and stealing his pants, or really any other possession, hence Juliette's car, which she'd left open by the road while taking a break. They want to stir things up this way to convert everyone to nudism, and advocate renouncing the superfluous to achieve a more perfect world in which all will be in touch with their "sensitivity."

Juliette has legally severed ties with her family, and set out on her own, effectively homeless now. She has lost not only her clothes but her lifetime collection of daily diaries, except the latest one, which she carries on her. She appears that evening at Captain Perdrix's house, her independence dented by loss of her car, but not her aggressiveness. This ménage has been compared by French critics to Wes Anderson's Tenenbaums. Besides Pierre, there is his mother Thérèse (the great Fanny Ardant), host of a radio show called "courrier du cœur", his brother Julien (Nicolas Maury, the hilarious gay agent in Netflix's "Call My Agent"), a biologist and geodrilologist (specializing in earthworms), and his niece Marion (Patience Munchenbach), Julien's daughter, who is twelve. The father died accidentally more than 20 years ago, but his memory is still vivid and maintained by Thérèse.

From the first moments at the gendarmerie, it's clear Juliette is outrageously wild, impulsive, and independent - exactly what's needed to rock Pierre's world. He will soon grow enamored of her, and his job will be to convince her he's not just a stick-in-the-mud, a "partridge," and worth rescuing from his life of safe inertia. Eventually he goes the extra mile, and then some, and does convince her. Soon he is dancing at a disco, declaiming poems by Novalis in translation, and building huts à la Robinson Crusoe (his favorite book as a youth). Juliette and Pierre set off in search of her stolen car, each according to their own methods, while a historical re-enactment of local battles of the Second World War takes place in the area. A mere war doesn't distract them from their growing interest in each other.

Mom Thérèse's radio show "courrier du cœur," whose postic musings about romantic love are a celebration of her long-dead husband (every moment of Fanny Ardant a gem) is broadcast from the family garage - a location well exploited for comic effect. The film is full of delicate humor and the occasional pratfall. It follows the classic mold of romantic comedy, but does so with original plot elements and a willingness to take up existential questions. Finding love isn't just romantic: it's a choice to embrace life. As the laughter subsides and the excitement grows, it's fun to observe the film, as Sandra Onana's Libération review puts it, overcome "its own reticence, or let's say modesty, towards the sentimental." It helps that there's some great, ardent string music, whose lusty surges are reminiscent of the Brahms Sextet in Louis Malle's The Lovers (1958).

From a review in the hip Paris media journal Les Inrockuptibles it emerges that Erwan Le Duc, who turned up as a debut feature filmmaker in Directors' Fortnight at Cannes this year, was already known as a sports correspondent for Le Monde with recent articles including "PSG [Paris Saint-Germain]: Dreaming less to earn more..." and "Rugby: Stuart Lancaster is back in the light and the shade." Turns out, though, Erwan had been making twenty- to thirty-minute shorts for a while. Commissaire Perdrix turned up in one of them as far back as 2011. His move from sports and shorts and into feature films is decidedly a success.

The Bare Necessity/Perdrix , 99 mins., debuted at Cannes Directors' Fortnight May 2019 and opened in France Aug. 14 (AlloCiné press rating 3.8/5). To be shown on Kino Virtual Theater in LA's Laemmle Virtual Cinema as part of three new festival films, starting Aug. 21, 2020, along with Burning Ghost/Vif-argent by Stéphane Batut and Wonders in the Suburbs/ Merveilles à Montfermeil by Jeanne Balibar, also reviewed here.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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