There should be a special ‘Quirky’ classification for films such as Everybody Loves Jeanne. The last movie I saw that combined comedy and strangeness in this fashion, was Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016), in whch a woman with a high-powered job is tormented by an embarassing father who wants to be part of everything. In Céline Devaux’s debut feature, one of the hits of this year’s French Film Festival, the lead character is haunted by her mother, who has committed suicide but still makes occasional appearances.
A more insistent presence is a ‘little ghost’, a hairy cartoon with big eyes that acts as the voice-inside-Jeanne’s-head. If Jeanne lights a cigarette or reaches for a drink, the ghost tells her all the reasons she shouldn’t do so – throat cancer! alcoholism! – providing a running commentary on her insecurities and bad decisions. The drawings are courtesy of the director, who has won awards for her animated short films.
Although Jeanne’s mother (Marthe Keller) enjoys a disproportionate role in this story, her actual scenes are brief. For Jeanne, played by French stand-up comedienne, Blanche Gardin, the damage was done in childhood, through her mother’s narcissicism and lack of affection. Now Mum is gone, having cleaned her flat and left a farewell note for Jeanne and her brother, Simon (Maxence Tual), along with a burden of guilt and shame. One of Jeanne’s many neurotic thoughts is that she let her mother down by not answering a phone call that could have saved her life.
This is, however, the least of Jeanne’s problems. When we meet her, she is at the height of her fame as the inventor of a device called Nausicaa, which promises to extract tonnes of microplastic from the world’s oceans. Intent on nothing less than saving the planet, she is thrilled when an admiring journalist tells her she is “woman of the year”. Woman of the year? Why not ‘Woman of the Century’? she fantasises.
This bubble bursts when Nausicaa misfires and sinks, prompting Jeanne to dive impulsively into the ocean to try and save her invention. This only makes her the subject of satirical memes on the Internet. Not only is she humiliated, she is broke, having put all her own money into the project. Penniless, jobless, on the verge of despair, her sole expedient is to sell the apartment in Lisbon that she and her brother have inherited.
With Simon’s blessing she sets off for Portugal to pack up the flat, but while waiting in the transit lounge she is approached by a “weird looking” guy she has watched steaing a pair of sunglasses. This character, Jean (Laurent Lafitte), knows her from French school in Lisbon, although she doesn’t remember him at all. “Everybody loved Jeanne”, he recalls, as Jeanne sinks deeper into self-hatred.
In Lisbon, Jeanne will battle with her misery, hesitantly reconnect with an old boyfriend, Vitor (Nuno Lopes), and receive multiple visits from Jean, usually in company with his small niece, Théo (Lisa Mirey). There’s not a lot more to the plot, aside from conversations with real estate agents, and Simon and his son turning up to help with the packing. The interest lies in watching Vitor become more insufferable – when he plays the guitar viewers may experience echoes of Ken’s guitar strumming in Barbie – while Jean gradually endears himself to Jeanne. Among the obstacles she has overcome is the fact that he is a casual kleptomaniac who confesses to having been confined in a mental hospital because of a “psychotic episode” in which he believed he was St. Jean of the Apocalypse.
There’s no doubting Jean is a weirdo, but more congenial company than the conceited Vitor. For Jeanne, who previously liked to tell herself she was “amazing”, Jean is the person who can help her get accustomed to ignominy and failure. He understands depression, anxiety, and other concepts Jeanne has been actively denying, while the voice in her head chips away at her broken self-esteem.
Jeanne has to learn she is not the starry genius admired by everyone, but a major flop. The blow to her ego is exacerbated by the trip to Lisbon and her memories of her mother’s harping criticism. If Jeanne’s career has been a success to this point, this has been a way of proving her mother wrong. At precisely the moment when she trips up, she is obliged to revisit her childhood home and remember all those scornful comments. Their familial estrangement now generates feelings of grief and regret.
Jean, and her brother, Simon, are Jeanne’s protection against her mother’s spectre, although they can’t stifle the cartoon ghost in her head. It’s these animated interruptions that never allow the film to settle into the predictable patterns of a romantic comedy. Although the closeness of their names alerts us that Jean is Jeanne’s soul mate, his eccentricities make him the most unlikely of suitors. For much of the time, Jeanne’s response is little more than the instinctive caution inspired by an oddball.
Laurent Lafitte gets Jean just right, by turns too familiar, then strangely dissociated, insightful yet oblique. Blanche Gardin spends much of the film looking glum, while thoughts go racing through her head. We’re party to the thoughts as well as the actions, to Jeanne’s delusions of grandeur and her gradual acceptance of a new reality. The moral of the story? If you can’t save the planet and be loved by everybody, it’s important to know you have at least one genuine fan.
Everybody Loves Jeanne
Written, directed & drawn by Céline Devaux
Starring: Blanche Gardin, Laurent Lafitte, Maxence Tual, Nuno Lopes, Marthe Keller, Lisa Mirey, Patty Hannock, Pedro Lacerda, Andrew Sanko Logan
France/Portugal, M, 95 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 16 September, 2023