The European Union Film Festival opened at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, March 1st and runs through the month of March. 61 films will be presented, and I’ll be reviewing as many as I can throughout the month.
One of the nice things about the EUFF is the chance to see mainstream European comedies that American distributors just don’t feel are unique enough to merit spending serious promotional money on here. Rest assured that Europeans get liberal doses of Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston and their ilk – perhaps if those three, and others, got a look at more of their European counterparts, their own projects might not concentrate so much on the same tired stories of arrested adolescence, mawkish earnestness or humiliation of the ‘other.’
If you've been reading my reviews over a period of time, you’re probably familiar with my propensity to promote European comedies over American ones. Exceptions like Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers aside, my standard line states that the vast majority of European mainstream comedies are about Grown-Ups – even the ones starring teen and twenty-something European actors. American comedies either concern themselves with teens and twenty-somethings who currently refuse to grow up, or they’re about much older people who, back when they were teens and twenty-somethings, decided they were never going to grow up. American producers and filmmakers tend to prostrate themselves at the feet of the 18-24-year-old audience demographic – even if our film is ostensibly about adults, there had better be some red meat for the kids, too. Have you actually suffered through the latest embarrassments from people like Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson or Barbra Streisand? Do you lament the descent into irrelevance that has plagued the latter stages of Meg Ryan’s career? It’s Complicated? Not really, Meryl – it’s apparently a paycheck. The Fockers? Ugghh… And don’t even get me started on Adam Sandler – did Paul Thomas Anderson and James L. Brooks teach him nothing…?!
Example #, oh, 186… of European superiority is a completely unoriginal, resolutely formulaic farce called My Worst Nightmare (Mon Pire Cauchemar) (France, 2012), from the veteran director Anne Fontaine, who doesn't have a post-modern-conceptualist auteur bone in her body. It’s a rare comedy for her, but she obviously likes making a fun, smart, entertaining comedy for Jean et Joséphine Q. Publique. And it’s hilarious. And smart. And heartwarming. And politically incorrect (*snigger*). I defy you to name a Vince Vaughn film over the last five years that’s remotely as satisfying as this film. (Fontaine also made the stylish biopic Coco Before Chanel (2009), with post-Amélie Audrey Tautou, and a scorchy little film called Nathalie (2003), though you may know it better by its sadly reductive remake, Chloe (2009), starring Amanda Seyfried and Julianne Moore [two very talented actresses who are still thoroughly smoked by their French counterparts, Emmanuelle Béart and Fanny Ardant]).
OK, the rant-ishness is subsiding, I promise. Agathe Novic (Isabelle Huppert) is the very demanding, tight-ship owner of a well-known Paris art gallery (i.e., a ballbusting snob). Her longtime partner is the equally well-known publisher François Dambreville (reliable veteran André Dussollier) (i.e. a pleasant but boring milquetoast intellectual), and, together they’re raising Adrien, their middle-school-aged son. Adrien has a new best friend, Tony, who seems like a great kid, but Agathe is horrified to learn that Tony’s father is obvious lout Patrick Demeuleu (the terrific Belgian character actor Benoît Poelvoorde), who had cruelly and crudely shown her up at a PTA meeting just hours before. Agathe barely tolerates Patrick for Adrien’s (and Tony’s) sake, but François warms to the earthy and testosterone-fueled Patrick, and ends up hiring him to complete a stalled weeks-long carpentry project in their spacious and elegant apartment – Agathe’s worst nightmare… ba-dump ching…
Patrick is a textbook bar-fighting, whore-screwing, wisecracking working stiff who is contending with French child services to keep custody of Tony. But he’s also a catalyst for François to reassess his arrangement with Agathe, which has become coldly platonic over the years, despite their mutual friendship and respect. When François meets Patrick’s child-services caseworker, the young and lovely Julie (Virginie Efira), they hit it off famously and begin an affair, leaving Agathe to commiserate with the now-unavoidable Patrick.
So there’s this seemingly happy couple living a seemingly ideal life, but everything’s thrown out of kilter by an interloping provocateur whom, ultimately, awakens them to all of life’s real pleasures; all of the stuff they've missed, ignored or taken for granted up until now. Kaufman and Hart no doubt found that to be a hopelessly stale premise even back in the thirties; they wrote The Man Who Came To Dinner anyway, in 1939, and made a fortune, seven years after Jean Renoir had made a film called Boudu Saved From Drowning based on the same idea. Yup, it’s a beloved classic, too. That story’s been told hundreds of times, from the Three Stooges to Joe Pesci to Owen Wilson, and, if you keep things simple and entertaining, audiences will gladly return to it again and again. Benoît Poelvoorde is cripplingly funny NOT because he’s so outrageous, but because he’s so real. You, yes you, know someone who’s exactly like Patrick Demeuleu. Isabelle Huppert, of course, is a monstrously talented French Actress, but if you think she’s slumming here, you’re wrong. Her facial expressions, her tone of voice, her reactions, her listening to the other person speaking, how she walks in those heels, her laugh, her drunkenness, her snobbery, her anger – Huppert takes this character just as seriously as Emma Bovary, or Jeanne in La Cérémonie, or Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher, except, y’know, funny. Want to watch one of the best working actresses on the planet today? Go see Isabelle Huppert when she’s slumming. Uh-huh…
Obviously, I liked this movie a lot. But, at the same time, I can honestly tell you that this film is no big deal. It’s lightweight, it’s kinda fluffy, and it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. But this is a film made by people who love and respect comedy, love and respect the form. And, perhaps most importantly, they respect you, the audience. They won’t talk down to you and they won’t insult your intelligence, but they want to share a few laughs with you about how real, grown-up people behave. And they already know that the film they've made will probably vaporize a few hours after you've left the theater. And that’s OK.
‘My Worst Nightmare’ screens on Saturday, March 16th at 8:15 p.m., Monday, March 18th at 6:00 p.m., and Thursday, March 28th at 8:15 p.m.