We meet thirty something Juliette Webb as she’s driving along a French country road. In fact, the first we see of her is a box full of notebooks in the back seat of her car. Later, we learn that she has journaled constantly since childhood as a way of locating herself in her restless ever-moving life. She parks the car, gets out to stretch and pace, her angular, intense figure almost exploding with movement and tension. She’s spiky, confrontational. But someone even more confrontational shows up. As Juliette takes a break to sit by the roadside and write a new journal entry, a nude woman appears on the road and steals her car. This is the device that throws Juliette into police chief Pierre Perdix’s life, when she turns up at the local police station to report the theft.
And so, we settle into what looks to be one of those predictable love stories so often seen in French cinema, a light confection of two lost, whimsical souls finding each other.
But director Erwan Le Duc has taken all the clichés and shaken them into a kaleidoscope of quirkily funny scenes, building them up through revealing, deadpan, hilarious moments of observation. Le Duc also wrote the script with clever, wry humour that catches you by surprise in LOL moments. One of his cleverest devices is to invert the gender roles. Here, it’s police chief Pierre (the Perdix of the original French title) who is the Sleeping Beauty waiting to be woken up and rescued by a startlingly active Juliette.
At the police station, we enter a world of comically passive men. They are lazy, sleepy, not doing much beyond having a cigarette or talking about the weather. An armoured tank rolls up outside and causes barely a raised eyebrow. It would take a bomb to shake up this insular world, and we already know Juliette will be that bomb. She has no boundaries; is disregarding of social etiquette.
The action is ramped up when Juliette takes the crime investigation into her own hands. In return, she feels entitled to turn up at Pierre’s house for food and shelter. If the police were passive, Pierre’s family is stuck in another level of inertia altogether. The root of it, is the loss of Pierre’s idealised father Felix that left his slightly boho mother, played to the hilt by Fanny Ardant, in a limbo of grief and longing.
Pierre’s intolerant brother (Nicolas Maury) is stuck in his own geek scientist world of earthworm studies, unable to relate to his teenage daughter, and hostile to everyone, including the kids he has to teach (“Instagram fuckwits” is just one of the insults he throws at them) and he’s especially defensive with Juliette.
“You’re not a likeable person,” he tells her at a deadpan comic dinner scene.
This is water off a duck’s back for Juliette who continues to batter down the walls of Pierre’s half-life. We can see exactly where this is going, but the ride is so funny and full of unexpected moments that you can’t help being pulled along. The film has shades of Wes Anderson in the styling and absurdist observational tone. The gorgeous lighting and layered framing of shots gives the film a rich, almost storybook feel.
Le Duc has written and directed four short films, including the critically acknowledged The Virgin Soldier (2016). He also works as a sports journalist for the daily newspaper Le Monde. He told Cineurope this feature is a love story but also about encounters.
“I’m dealing with groups of characters who are very easily identifiable at the start (they even have uniforms: the cops, the nudists, those of the people who re-enact historical battles…). Establishing these very striking worlds gave me the opportunity to then play with their codes, and to have them work against each other.”
Le Duc assembled an experienced cast. There’s Ardant, a legend of French cinema, with over 80 movies to her name including The Woman Next Door for Francois Truffaut. At 70, she makes it believable that she is a radio jock combatting her grief with a string of lovers.
Swann Arlaud plays Pierre, recently winning a Cesar for his portrayal of a pedophile priest’s victim in Francois Ozon’s By the Grace of God, and Maud Wyler is the fearless Juliette.
There are a couple of drawn out scenes near the end of the film as Le Duc has fun tying all the threads together and wringing the last drops of comedy out of the tropes he introduced, but the film was a standout at Cannes directors fortnight last year and is well deserving of the slot as Closing Night of the Alliance Francais French Film Festival.