Film Reviews

Paris-Manhattan & Quartet

Published December 22, 2012

“Heartwarming” must be the most overused word in the film critic’s lexicon. It suggests we enter the cinema as  cold-hearted types and are transformed by the power of a movie. When the lights go back on we are more sensitive, more optimistic; we believe in the essential goodness of human beings and the necessity of love. If only!
More realistically, we snatch an hour or two away from our workaday lives and anxieties. Such films are no less escapist than action movies although they offer more plausible options for fantasy self-identification. While some viewers might dream of being James Bond, almost everyone can put themselves in the shoes of a sensitive, misunderstood person, looking for the Other than makes them whole; or perhaps the person who gets a second chance to repair an old wound – or a dozen other scenarios.
Paris-Manhattan and Quartet have both been saddled with the “heart-warming” tag. This can be a distinct turn-off for many, but the success or failure of such a film can only be judged by the quality of the writing and acting. Cinematography plays a less prominent but still significant role in creating intimacy between characters, and between them and us.
Sophie Lellouche’s Paris-Manhattan has been billed as a love letter to Woody Allen, and compared endlessly to Play it Again Sam (1972). In this film, directed by Herbert Ross and based on a play by Allen, the lead character has imaginary conversations with his idol, Humphrey Bogart, who helps him sort out his love life.
In Paris-Manhattan, Alice Ovitz (Alice Taglioni), is a 30-something pharmacist with a fixation on Woody Allen. Even her name echoes the title of an Allen film of 1990. She has a poster of the young Woody on her wall, which continually speaks to her in sound-bites extracted from Allen’s movies, offering pithy gems of wisdom.
Like Allen, and director, Sophie Lellouche, Alice is Jewish, and there is a vein of neurotic humour running through the story. Despite its tendency to make heavy weather of trifles, Jewish humour is also an expression of underlying strength – the defiance of a world that has singled you out for attention and keeps throwing obstacles in your path.
Alice is no ugly duckling, but she seems unable to find the right man. Her parents are concerned that a nice Jewish girl like her is being left on the shelf, but Alice is a natural misfit who prefers Cole Porter to today’s music, and is adept at doing and saying the wrong thing on social occasions. Her bedroom is her sanctuary, where Woody is the presiding deity.
Lellouche gives us a brief flashback over Alice’s life, showing that the only time she met a man at a party who liked Cole Porter, he was whisked away by her sister. Years later he and her sister are married, with a teenage daughter, while Alice is still single.
One of the attractive things about Alice is her equanimity. In her pharmacy she doen’t simply dispense prescriptions, she hands out DVDs of Woody Allen and Ernst Lubitsch films as cures for various ailments. Even a potential robber is sent away with a handful of discs.
This is Lellouche’s first feature, and it is impressive in its assurance. She avoids the obvious forms of plot development – girl meets boy, loses boy, gets boy back – in favour of a more fluid approach, in which the characters circle around each other, keeping an ironic distance until the inevitable coming-together. Even that moment requires a catalyst, which I won’t reveal.
From the minute we meet Victor (Patrick Bruel) a locksmith and alarm installer, it is obvious that he and Alice are fated for each other. Her family are thinking about him right away, although that acts as a disincentive. Victor himself is not the conventional romantic suitor. He has been hurt by a woman in the past, and protects himself with a wry, slightly cynical view of life. His courtship is conducted with a pretense of indifference, while Alice becomes involved with a slick, handsome fellow named Vincent (Yannick Soulier).
Even while Vincent is Alice’s lover, her real intimacy is with Victor. As the story progresses they grow closer by degrees, which is precisely the way successful relationships develop in real life.
In fact it’s an improvement on real life, where so many people model their own romances on the ridiculous examples encountered in films, with a happy ending taken for granted. How many love affairs are conducted in clichés borrowed from bad movies?
The strength of Paris-Manhattan is the director’s ability to make us feel Alice and Victor have a friendship that is slowly gelling into love, regardless of Alice’s wrangles with her family and her involvement with another man. It is a story devoid of jealousy and other overheated passions, constructed with a lightness of touch that reveals a grounding in the films of Ernst Lubitsch. Within this framework the performances of Alice Taglioni and Patrick Bruel are exceptional, especially the latter – an old-style French character actor, also known as a singer.
The real point of comparison for this film should not be Play it Again Sam, but Julie Delpy’s Two Days in New York, which aspired to Woody Allen-style humour but degenerated into the banality of an American sit-com, with characters that were no more than cartoons. In Delpy’s film everything was telegraphed and over-played. In Paris-Manhattan even the most farcical moments are laced with charm. It left me wishing that Woody Allen himself was still able to make such a cool and stylish feature. Every time I see a new Allen production I think of the scene in Stardust Memories (1980), his homage to Fellini’s 8 ½, when a group of aliens tell Woody: “We like your movies, particularly the early funny ones.” It’s obvious these are the films Sophie Lellouche prefers.
Old age is a popular subject for heart-warming comedy-drama, but there is no incentive for fantasy self-identification, at least not before the age of 80. Every time I see one of these geriatric sagas – and there is an epidemic of such films – I have visions of failing hips and knees, wrinkles and dementia. No matter how warm one’s heart grows before the credits roll, the temperature is kept in check by the chill breath of mortality on the back of one’s neck.
At the age of 75 that fine actor, Dustin Hoffman, has made his debut as a director, if one discounts a movie called Straight Time (1978), where Hoffman called the shots but went uncredited. For a 75-year-old neophyte, Quartet is a good place to start. Based on a play by the ever-smooth Ronald Harwood, it is a chamber piece that never requires much more than an attractive location and a group of talented actors.
The setting is Beecham House, a retirement home for professional musicians in the English countryside. The cast is a Who’s Who of British film, stage and television, including Maggie Smith as Jean, Tom Courtenay as Reggie, Pauline Collins as Cissy, and Billy Connelly as Wilf, who is attempting to grow old disgracefully.
In addition, we have Michael Gambon; TV comedians such as Andrew Sachs and Trevor Peacock, and a raft of retired opera singers and musicians. It takes a little while to get accustomed to the idea that everyone is now so very old. Go back and look at Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar (1963), or Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), and you’ll see what I mean. Even Billy Connolly has a gammy leg and the occasional dizzy spell.
Having overcome the shock of the old, Quartet turns out to be a very entertaining affair. This is partly because of the thrill of seeing so many celebrated actors brought together in one tight little story, and partly because of the music which permeates every notable scene.
The plot is negligible, being centred on Jean’s arrival at Beecham House, and the effect she has on the other residents. In her day, Jean was a great Diva, and she retains the lofty attitudes. Her appearance is particularly difficult for Reggie, a renowned tenor, who was married to her for a few short hours.
Together with Cissy and Wilf, the singers are known for a famous version of the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto, – Bella figlia dell’amore – and Cedric (Michael Gambon) the kaftan-clad producer of the annual Beecham House benefit concert, is eager for a return performance. This is galling to Jean, who is concerned that her aging voice is not up to the job, and difficult for Cissy, who is losing her marbles.
It’s much ado about nothing, you might think, and that is perfectly true. Yet it’s the kind of nothing that will bring a smile to your face, which is not a bad result. In a movie such as Pitch Perfect – about aspiring young singers – I would have required electrodes on both temples to raise a smile. My conclusion is that there is more pleasure to be found in a compact ensemble work such as Quartet than in any number of big-budget formula films intended to tap the teeny market.
Then again, perhaps old people are simply funnier, smarter and more charismatic than young ones. I’m not quite ready to accept this proposition yet, but it’s an idea that becomes more seductive with each passing year.

Paris-Manhattan, France, rated PG. 80 mins
Quartet, UK, rated M, 98 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, December 22, 2012