I’ve seen two French films in two days at two different Curzon cinemas, one I enjoyed and admired, one I didn’t. But hey, as much as I am drawn to French cinema, I can’t like everything they produce, can I? That would be insane. (I don’t like Camembert either.)
On Sunday I saw Catherine Corsini’s Leaving (or Partir) at the Curzon Mayfair. It’s Kristin Scott Thomas once again playing an adopted Frenchwoman wreaking domestic havoc with her bone structure and soft eyes. In Phillipe Caudel’s much-lauded I’ve Loved You So Long, her Anglo-French accent was explained by her character having grown up in England and moved to France. In this, it’s the same thing – in fact, her character, Suzanne, says she came to France to work as an au pair, just as Scott Thomas did aged 19. Neat. To me, her French is perfect, but I suspect that’s to my British ears. Scott Thomas has certainly found an enviable position in European cinema thanks to her dual citizenship and easy confidence in two tongues. Plus, of course, she is an amazing, unshowy actress, making these flawed heroines both incredibly attractive and authentically fallible.
Here, she does what Tilda Swinton did in I Am Love (hey, another actress deftly crossing the Channel, playing Anglo-Italian in an Italian film): casts aside the restrictions of a middle class lifestyle by having rough outdoor sex with a peasant. A housewife and mother looking to return to work as a physio after 15 years of devotion to the family, Suzanne falls for the Spanish builder sent to convert a garage into a surgery – they are seen sweatily clearing the rubbish out together and when they share a Corona beer, a connection is credibly made.
Even though she’s in the wrong – her breadwinning husband, a doctor (Yvan Attal), is essentially decent, if controlling and patronising – we must identify with her while she transgresses. This is possible because of the convincing chemistry of Scott Thomas and Catalan actor Sergi Lopez (the brutal Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth). All credit to Corsini for providing the bed, as it were, for this onscreen relationship. When hubby plays rough on discovery of the affair, our sympathies should lie with him, but again, through subtlety of script and acting, the tide turns and he becomes the villain of the piece.
While watching Leaving – and trying to ignore the old man in the same row as me, clearing his throat in a most sonorously booming and repetitive manner throughout – I wondered why I love French films so much. The plot of this film is: wife falls in love with builder, leaves husband, husband gets cross. That’s kind of it. Who would make that film in this country? And yet, it’s done with such easy realism and actually unphotogenic sexual passion, you buy into it. The script doesn’t feel written, although it clearly was, and in fact should feel more written as it’s been translated into subtitles, which I am reading. But it would be way too convenient to say that French drama is always more realistically written. Sometimes, it’s more poetic than English, but again, that may be in translation. I like the way French sounds, with its ums and ahs, as if the speaker is always searching for the right way to convey something. Just an observation.
I guess I’m attracted to the French lifestyle, like the impressionable chump I am. Not the affluence we often see in these domestic dramas; it’s the simple things are what make it attractive: bread, coffee, wine, beer, little cars, crunchy driveways, a national anthem that sings of the tyrant’s blood-stained banner …
However, I have discovered, via Joann Sfar’s intriguing new biopic Gainsbourg, which I saw at the Curzon Wimbledon yesterday, that I can’t stand the music of Serge Gainsbourg. Actually, what I discovered, by way of what is a deliberately unreliable narrative, is that I hardly know any of his canon beyond the super-obvious Je t’aime … moi non plus and Bonnie & Clyde. Sfar based his film on his own stylised graphic novel, which is what makes it so unusual. Do not expect La vie en rose. In it, fanciful vignettes help to build a partial picture of Gainsbourg’s early life – growing up Jewish under the Vichy government during the war and being hidden at a Catholic boarding school in the country, before smarming his way into art school where he discovered nude ladies – but the first jarring device is when a massive Jewish face starts following the boy around, and is then replaced by a Mr Noseybonk-style apparition (played with great bodily fluidity by Doug Jones, also seen, or not seen, in Pan’s Labyrinth), with a big nose, big ears and big fingers – which actually appear to play the piano at one point.
His “ugliness” is a key theme – he is dismissed as “ugly” by a little girl on the beach in the first scene, and his “mug” does more than just follow him around like a sinister, anti-Semitic Frank Sidebottom. You sense that Gainsbourg spent his whole life taking revenge on the world for calling him ugly. He seduced all those beauties – Bardot, Birkin, Hardy – once he was famous because he could, and because he shouldn’t have been allowed to. (By the way, Birkin is warmly played by model Lucy Gordon, who subsequently hanged herself, which makes her scenes extra poignant and sad.)
It’s an interesting approach, and having enjoyed Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’s abstract expressionism, I have no problem with Sfar’s infidelity to the truth, and his literal mythologising of La vie heroique, the film’s subtitle. (Apparently a supportive Charlotte Gainsbourg wanted it this way, too.) Unfortunately, it doesn’t go far enough. Some sequences are presented as feverish fantasy, and periods seem to merge into one another, without any of that anal captioning of years etc., meanwhile Gainsbourg has conversations with himself, and his parents seem to be played for pantomime giggles. The Bridget Bardot sequence – in which Laetitia Casta, the model, has fun with a bedsheet – might be a scene from a musical, set as it is to more of his songs, including a particularly irksome ditty called Comic Strip. But I think we are supposed also to treat Bardot as a flesh-and-blood character. And it’s impossible to care about any of them. They come across as ciphers.
Added to which, Gainsbourg, even in this mythic reading, is a bit of a prick throughout. If, like many non-French people, you do not connect with his chanson period, or his 60s paedo-pop (Les sucettes), or his pretty desperate-seeming late brush with reggae, it’s hard to let him off for being arrogant and irresponsible and horrible and self-destructive and a bad dad. By the end, I was wishing death upon him. And when he stumbles into a studio in Jamaica and the entire band of local musicians seem to know exactly what he wants them to play, even though he can barely form words, is just pure fromage. Again, this might have worked if the whole thing had been a Pink Floyd: The Wall-style fantasy, into which Noseybonk and Big Jewish Face would have fitted perfectly.
A great performance by Eric Elmosnino, he looks uncannily like Gainsbourg, but not a film to fall in love with. I feel disloyal for not liking a French film – as I did a few months ago with Father Of My Children, which none other than my critical hero Anthony Lane praised – but this one I was wriggling to get out of.