The French have a word for it…

This week, two French films are both incredibly different in content but very similar in their measured, assured, and unhyberbolic styles; also, both use design subtly, but vitally… the first in recreating Cold War Moscow, the second in building an entire Parisian apartment complex on a soundstage.


There is  a sublime moment in Farewell, the new film from French director Christian Carion, where idealistic Russian traitor Gregoriev (played with stoic, crumpled grandeur by Serbian director Emir Kusturica) passes a couple of film canisters to a Frenchman living in Moscow, Pierre (Guillaume Canet), with whom he has struck up an almost random, complicit relationship. Gregoriev is not happy with the state of the Soviet Union, and he’s passing secrets in the hope of bringing about a new revolution. He doesn’t want money (though he does ask for French champagne, poetry, and a Sony Walkman) and, more interestingly, he has no plans to defect – the point is that he loves his country: his intention is not to betray it but to improve it. Pierre, at first baffled, comes to understand that he has, against all natural odds, been thrust into the very centre of the future of the entire planet, and it is this disparity – the tale of two relatively ordinary blokes exchanging the future of the world – that is so beautifully reflected in the simple gesture of the passing of those film canisters. Those canisters contain information that will change the world, but, when shot at mid-range, they are simply two black objects in a small plastic bag disappearing into an ordinary man’s winter coat pocket.


First-time feature director Mona Achache has delivered a calmly-paced, meticulous and beautifully acted film that is, according to the opening credits, “freely inspired” by popular French novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. The book’s title is actually more interesting than the film’s (which makes it sound like an animated movie for kids); “elegance” is actually one of its central themes, and one which makes it almost pathologically French. Indeed, the film almost could not be more French, set, as it is, in one of those gorgeous Parisian apartments where the elevator shaft, enclosed in glass, runs up the the centre of the stairwell, so that those who choose to walk up or down are constantly overtaking those who prefer to ride. Renée (the extremely talented Josiane Balasko), the “hedgehog” of the title (in an overstretched metaphor) is the concierge of said Parisian apartment building – a small affair completely inhabited by card-carrying members of the bourgousie. The subtitles here reflect the absolute Frenchness of the film: the translations “janitor” (for concierge) and “upper-class” (for bourgousie) just don’t seem to adequately suggest the intricate class-based resonances of both of those words – and the French class system, as reflected within the microcosm of this apartment building (which was constructed on a sound stage – Art Director Patrick Schmitt, Set Decorator Thierry Rouxel) is what this film is all about. The plot, such as it is (and it is very slight indeed) concerns eleven-year old Paloma (an amazing Garance Le Guillermic, who is in most of the scenes and is vital to the film’s success), who, disgusted with her bourgois family, decides to kill herself on her next birthday (don’t worry – the film is not her tragedy). On the way to this milestone, she observes the growing relationship between Renee the hedgehog and new tenant Kakuro (the truly elegant Togo Igawa) and learns a lot more about life. That’s it – the interest here is in the telling of the story, not the story itself, and it’s the delicacy of the acting, design and direction of this quiet film that rewards us. Unfortunately, the end result has the feeling of “Maybe this was actually better as a book” – but if you like all things French, this film has it for you in spades.

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