I’m not sure if Agnès Jaoui gets the attention she deserves (outside France) as one of the great filmmakers (taking the term in its widest sense). Certainly she wins the awards, stacking up Césars with regularity, but she doesn’t often get discussed as arguably the most successful woman in contemporary French Cinema – as actor, writer and director. Perhaps it’s because her achievements are always in conjunction with her partner, the droll Jean-Pierre Bacri. The couple have written two award-winning scripts for Alain Resnais (Smoking/No Smoking, 1994 and On connaît la chanson, 1998) plus Un air de famille (1997) for Cédric Klapisch. They then followed these hits with two of their own in which they both starred and Agnès directed, Le goût des autres (The Taste of Others, 2000) and Comme une image (Look at Me, 2004). In the meantime Agnès has continued to act in a range of other films.
I enjoyed these last two films a great deal (and Une air de famille, which I saw before I realised who they were) and I was looking forward to seeing their latest venture. It didn’t disappoint and I laughed more than I have for a long time. All the scripts the couple write seem to have the same basis – a group of people who come together for an event of some kind during which their relationships and personal issues will be exposed and challenged. Usually the protagonists are related as family members, partners or work colleagues. Parlez-moi de la pluie (a title taken from a chanson as I discovered from various reviews) takes place in an unusually rainy August in Provence. As several commentators have pointed out, the plot brings together several current concerns of French Cinema with two sisters, Agathe and Florence, meeting in their parents old house to sort out their mothers’ papers after her death. This recalls the Olivier Assayas film, Summer Hours which played earlier this year. The family came back to France from North Africa and Mimouna, the maid/nanny from their childhood is still with the family. Mimouna’s son Karim works as a clerk in a local hotel but he is an enthusiastic filmmaker who has yet to fulfil his potential. He teams up with Michel, his former tutor/mentor, an eccentric and not very competent journalist/filmmaker to make an ‘intimate documentary’ about a successful woman. They choose Agathe as she is a bestselling Parisian author, an avowed feminist now hoping to launch a political career. Michelis divorced and has begun an affaire with Florence. Karim is happily married, but also attracted to his co-worker at the hotel, Aurélie and Agathe, who doesn’t believe in marriage has a boyfriend in tow.
The set-up sounds more like a farce or a melodrama, but Jaoui and Bacri’s skill in writing dialogue and orchestrating scenes is such that it produces a social comedy, a humanist drama and a gentle political satire. This third film is more ‘political’ than the previous two. The North African connection recalls the dark ‘secret’ behind Caché (Hidden, 2005) and the political ambitions of Agathe, although she is never presented in situ as a politician, nevertheless allows a discussion about the urban/rural divide in France. This sequence offered me the funniest scenes I’ve seen this year, involving impeccable comic timing by a flock of sheep on a hillside. Jaoui has either the patience of a saint or a real empathy for animals.
Of course, the danger of this kind of approach is that the balance between farce and nuanced social commentary is very fine. I’ve read several reviews claiming the film is ‘unbelievable’ and ‘soggy’ (the inevitable references to the rain). But, for me, this is the genius of the film in that the comedy punctures the social defences that characters have constructed, revealing a truer self beneath. This is certainly the case with Agathe who at first seems like a self-centred and disciplined metropolitan, but later becomes humanised. Admittedly the situation is silly, but it is played with a seriousness that allows the trick to work. Bacri is magnificent as the incompetent filmmaker.
There are a couple of puzzling aspects to the character of Karim that I’d like to see explained a bit more (others have noticed the same points and as yet nobody has come up with an explanation). The first is a comment Karim makes about how his mother is treated when she visits a pharmacist. The subtitles translate the pharmacist’s comment as something along the lines of “take three blue ones in the morning and two red ones at night”. This is clearly intended to be taken as an institutionally racist comment directed towards an older North African woman. It strikes me as mildly patronising at worst and in the UK is probably common practice – I take medication regularly and I’m not offended if someone reminds me what the different coloured tablets do. I suspect I might be missing something here? (The other observation Karim makes is much more clearly an insult.) The second issue is the non-role given to Karim’s wife. She really only exists to have her name mis-remembered by Michel and to stand in the way of a possible affaire between Karim and Aurélie. This just seemed to me to be a rare mistake in an otherwise well-constructed script.
As Karim, Jamel Debbouze is excellent. He is a huge star in France, partly through television as well as film appearances. I’ve only seen him in Indigènes (Days of Glory, 2006) the terrific film about the French Army of Africa fighting in the Second World War and in Amélie. He must in some ways be the biggest film star with a visible disability working currently. I remembered this in the first few minutes of his screen time and then forgot about it completely. I mention it simply because this week the Guardian carried a short article about a comedy film made by a disabled director and cast in the UK. As arguably France’s leading comedian, Jamel Debbouze needs more exposure in the UK – for our benefit. He seems to be doing pretty well for himself, as do Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri.