Agnés Jaoui directed her sublime first film The Taste of Others (Le goût des autres) in 2000, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film in the process. Jaoui and her writing partner Jean-Pierre Bacri have since collaborated on two other movies: Look at Me (Comme une image, 2004) and Let it Rain (Parlez-moi de la pluie, 2008), which is now playing at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco. If you’ve happened upon the film trailers, you’ll get the misleading impression that the movies are screwball comedies.
In fact, it is their countryman, Francis Veber, who writes and directs amusing but simplistic farces like The Valet (La doublure, 2006) and The Dinner Game (Le diner de cons, 1998), which has recently been remade as Dinner for Schmucks, starring Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd. The idea of an American studio attempting to remake the sophisticated and multi-layered films of Jaoui and Bacri seems like an act of folly; or, a rather fitting idea for a Jaoui and Bacri film. Each one of their scripts is Pirandellian in that they all feature a story within a story: actors performing in a play; singers rehearsing for a concert; subjects being interviewed for a documentary. As a result, the presence of artists at work expertly establishes the fourth wall, and the filmmakers’s witty, invented world becomes wonderfully, and often absurdly, alive. But the most rewarding aspect of their work thus far has been the pageant-like display of their characters’s many foibles – the sympathetic ones that make them vulnerable, alongside the ugly ones that reveal egotism and vanity.
As an actor, Jean-Pierre Bacri has taken on the role of the buffoon with great gusto. The business executive he plays in The Taste of Others sports a mustache like that of a morose walrus. He embodies melancholy, and, with that shadowy droop on his upper lip, elevates the lovelorn sulk into a work of living portraiture. In Look at Me, he becomes a famous and utterly self-absorbed author, who is unable to pay close attention to the emotional needs of his family. In both films, he is a man with money, influence and power. Let it Rain gives Bacri the opportunity to continue with his on screen fatuousness, but this time it is Jaoui’s character whose professional status outranks his, as well as everyone else’s.
As an actress, Agnés Jaoui’s pale, rounded face and wide, liquid eyes can summon up the indomitable spirit of a Bette Davis heroine. The characters she’s played in these three films – from a bartender to a vocal coach, and now a feminist author and would-be politician – have become more expressive, as she withholds less of herself from the camera. Though all of their films are ensemble pieces, the arrival of her character, Agathe Villanova, is at the center of the drama in Let it Rain, and the story benefits from giving her more to do in front of the lens.
As a favor to a family friend, Villanova agrees to be featured in a documentary, while simultaneously running for office in a local election. To complicate matters further, her long-term relationship, which she refuses to define, is starting to fray, and, at the same time, her sister’s marriage is also unravelling. There are, of course, the requisite subplots and minor characters who come in and out of focus as the narrative progresses. But what is essential to their oeuvre remains true in Let in Rain: that there is hope for the flawed, main characters to change. Jaoui and Bacri deliver these transformative moments, in scenes that could have been excerpts from silent film classics: a man weeps during a poignant scene in a play, as if for the first time in his life; an unhappy actress finally delivers a smile, realizing she is loved; a daughter, invisible to her father, finds her voice at last, and in doing so, also finds a separate, adult self.
The films of Jaoui and Bacri are like song cycles: their soundtracks are filled with lieder (most often by Schubert) that punctuate the opening or closing shots of a scene. The recurring themes are the same from film to film (intimacy, meaningful work, art, family matters), but explored from differing viewpoints, whether cross-cultural, or across class lines. Like lieder, the stories they tell are affecting because they have created a filmed correlative to a musical crescendo, a gradual building up of emotional intensity and insight. No characters on film deserve happy endings more than the sad and self-deluded creations of Jaoui and Bacri. In their world, the broken deserve to be mended; and love, that elusive panacea, is the object that we all covet the most.[Let it Rain is playing at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco.]