Phil on Film Index

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Review - Not Here to be Loved (Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé) and Molière

At the time of year when the majority of films are more concerned with dazzling the eyeballs than engaging the heart, it might be the perfect moment to contemplate a film which pulls off the seemingly difficult task of doing the simple things well. Stephane Brizé's Not Here to be Loved is a film which doesn't try to break any new ground or do anything out of the ordinary, and yet it remains a perfectly pleasurable way to spend 90 minutes. The story is old hat cinematically - the tale of a stuffy, middle-aged man who finds a new lease of life when he enrols in a dance class - and it's a story which has already been told twice on screen relatively recently, in Masayuki Suo’s Shall we Dance and in the Richard Gere-starring remake of the same name. But Not Here to be Loved works not because of the story it tells, but through the manner in which that story is told.

The man at the centre of this narrative is Jean-Claude Delsart (Patrick Chesnais), a Parisian bailiff on the wrong side of 50. He is trapped in an unsatisfying job, he lives alone since his divorce, and even small talk among his colleagues - including his own son (Cyril Couton) - at the office is an unbearable ordeal. Every weekend Jean-Claude makes the trip to his father's rest home to keep the old man (a fantastic Georges Wilson) company, but he receives little thanks for his efforts from this grumpy and petulant figure. This is a man trapped in a rut and only going downwards, but after his doctor prescribes exercise for Jean-Claude's heart he finally decides to visit the dance class across the street which he has been covertly watching from his office.

His first lesson is comically awkward, of course, but Jean-Claude does bump into the beautiful Françoise (Anne Consigny). She recognises him from the past - his mother used to be her nanny - and as the pair reminisce an affection quickly grows between them. But Françoise is taking the class in preparation for her upcoming nuptials, to terminally blocked novelist Thierry (Lionel Abelanski), and the conflicting emotions which she feels are mirrored by Jean-Claude, who must decide whether to break the habit of a lifetime and declare his feelings for his younger dance partner.

This is well-trodden ground, but the steps Brizé takes in telling this story make it feel a little fresher than you might expect. The director has a deft, easygoing style. His static camera captures the banality of Jean-Claude's everyday existence, trudging dutifully up and down stairs to issue eviction notices, and quietly absorbing the insults they inevitably hurl his way. The grey and stultifying nature of his workplace is emphasised by Brizé's straightforward compositions, and this approach allows the director to gradually free up the camera as his protagonist enters the world of dance. His film becomes somewhat bolder in tune with Jean-Claude's growing confidence, and the excellent music helps to shape the picture as it progresses.

The progression of the film's central relationship is also a delight to behold, with both of the leads being perfectly cast. Chesnais' humble, charmingly downbeat performance is a wonderfully subtle display of acting. He is minimalist yet expressive, and he charts his character's development in gradual, perfectly-judged shades. He also has a tangible chemistry with his co-star, the lovely Anne Consigny, whose open and optimistic demeanour contrasts sharply with that of Chesnais. Like Jean-Claude, Françoise is trapped by circumstance, her pushy mother and sister having completely taken over the preparations for the wedding, and the actress captures her confused emotions beautifully. When Jean-Claude and Françoise dance together, it is a chance for both to break free from the ties that bind, allowing them to let go of the worries and pressures which have made their lives so stifling.

Not Here to be Loved is full of wonderful individual scenes - Jean-Claude's comical attempt to buy perfume for Françoise , his father's truculent behaviour during a game of monopoly, and a lovely sequence in which the whole class goes to watch a professional performance, although Jean-Claude can't take his eyes off Françoise sitting a few rows ahead. These scenes are perfectly handled, but Brizé's firm grip on the film's emotional register never allows the picture to build up a head of steam, resulting in a film which is affecting only up to a point. The strand of the film concerning Jean-Claude's fractious relationship with his father is exceptionally written and acted, but it never quite delivers the emotional impact we're looking for, and the way Brizé wraps up this part of the narrative feels a little too neat.

Not Here to be Loved might fail to really hit the desired emotional peak right at the climax, but it still manages to leave the viewer with a warm sense of satisfaction; the satisfaction which comes from watching a simple story being told in a professional, engaging way. Stephane Brizé, in only his second feature, has skilfully delivered a film which is rich in character and detail, a film which constantly holds the viewers' attention as is details the efforts of two ordinary people trying to somehow give their lives meaning and purpose. This modest French effort isn't a great film, but it is a simple film made with a sense of maturity, intelligence and heart. Often, that's all you need.

Read my interview with
Stephane Brizé here.

A title like
Molière tends to come burdened with certain expectations. Think of any recent feature which has taken its subject's name as the title - Capote, Kinsey, Pollock - and you'll generally find a very serious-minded picture which focuses on the facts as it tries to explore the life of a famous figure. Laurent Tirard's fanciful treatment of the great French playwright's life is nothing of the sort, though. Instead of detailing every event in Jean-Baptiste Poquelin's story in the standard manner, Tirard mostly focuses his attention on a specific period which has long been a matter of dispute among historians and biographers. At the age of 22 Molière was a struggling dramatic actor, whose loyal troupe was crippled by debts, and his financial problems ultimately landed him in jail - that much we know to be true - but there is little consensus on what happened after he was released.

This is where Tirard picks up the story. The writer/director has taken advantage of the ambiguity which surrounds the subsequent two years of Molière's life, and his mostly fictional narrative suggests that this period might have been the making of the man history remembers. Here, Molière (played by Romain Duris) is bailed out of jailed by Mr Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), a wealthy but pitifully dim bourgeois, and he has very specific plans for the bemused actor. Jourdain needs Molière to help him write a play which will win the heart of the lovely young maiden Célimène (Ludivigne Sagnier). This little plot must be kept under wraps though, as Jourdain's suspicious wife (Laura Morante) is constantly on the prowl.

Molière soon finds himself in the middle of a farcical comedy of romantic entanglements and misunderstandings - the kind of story, in fact, that he might well have written himself. This notion, of viewing an artist's life through the prism of his own work, is a smart one, and the inevitable comparisons to
Shakespeare in Love are apt. Tirard and his co-screenwriter Grégoire Vigneron liberally scatter references to Molière's work throughout the picture, with many of the characters he meets seemingly being the inspiration for those who would later crop up in plays like Tartuffe and Les Précieuses ridicules, and the film as a whole plays as a period romp, leaning towards farce in a number of areas.

There's one problem with all of this though -
Molière simply isn't funny enough. The film is spottily amusing, but to really work as intended everything needed to be sharper and tighter than Tirard allows it to be. The director's pacing is slack, with many scenes being allowed to drift on longer than they should be; it's as if the director is more concerned with letting us drink in the sumptuous production values (and it is a glossy package, even if the overbearing musical score is one of the year's worst) instead of allowing the film to build up the kind of fizzy momentum it desperately requires. A few of the more outlandish comic scenes are badly overplayed, slipping from farce to outright hysteria, and they showcase the awkwardness in the casting of the central character. Romain Duris has shown himself to be a fine, charismatic leading man in recent years, but based on this appearance comedy is not his forte. The actor is game, but he never looks entirely comfortable in a part which asks for a really light touch, and his performance - particularly when he impersonates a horse - is occasionally excruciating. Molière's supporting cast rallies around Duris though, with Luchini displaying some unexpected comic skills and the wonderful Laura Morante providing the film with a welcome pool of subtlety and grace.

Molière sadly slips into mawkishness towards the end as well, dragging badly as the clock inches towards the two-hour mark, and the film closes on a trite, unsatisfying note. There are moments buried within this picture that might make you smile and the film is engaging more often than not, but it's a clunky, mishandled effort which stumbles when it should be light on its feet. By the end of the picture Molière has learned to set aside the serious dramas and to stay true to his natural gift - making people laugh - but it is Tirard's failure to do the same which kills any potential his unorthodox biopic might possess.