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Non-Review Review: Cherchez Hortense

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

Inoffensive. That might be the best way to describe Cherchez Hortense, a French comedy of manners about people trying to figure out how to get what they want from life – and each other. The cast do a great job, especially Jean-Pierre Bacri in the lead role of Damien Hauer, who just about manages to give the film enough weight to stop it floating effortlessly away. There’s nothing wrong with some light character-driven comedy, but Cherchez Hortense suffers from the fact that it seems like even one direct conversation would sort absolutely everything out. Okay, that’s a slight oversimplification (it depends which direct conversation), but it’s not too far from the truth. While the script is sharp and witty enough that the actors never feel like they’re just going in circles, there’s a weird sense of contrivance around Cherchez Hortense which gives means it’s hard to get too invested in anything that’s going on.

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To be fair, there is quite a lot to like about Cherchez Hortense. In particular, the tragi-comic portrayal of the breakdown of the relationship between Hauer and his lover, Iva Delusi. It helps that the two actors involved – Bacri and Kristin Scott Thomas – are superb, but there’s an emotional realism to the passive-aggressive erosion of their relationship that feels very real and very tangible in a way that a lot of the rest of the film… well, doesn’t. The fact that their long-term affair collapses in a matter-of-fact and emotionally cold manner grounds the film in a way that histrionics or dramatic bombast simply wouldn’t. These characters feel like real people, and their interactions feel like life transposed to the screen.

It’s a problem, then, that everything else feels so contrived. Part of it is an attempt to draw out the romantic farce. Everybody thinks that Hauer has done something that he has yet to do, and hilarity ensues because he lacks enough character to forcefully deny the gratitude that is thrown his way. That’s not a bad starting premise. However, we get a rake of awkward interactions that rely on strange character moments to work, propelling the script forward.

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For example, the final conversation between Hauer and his father takes a surreal turn that really seems dramatically out of character for both people involved. I understand that Hauer is supposed to be learning to be more assertive, but it seems almost random. And, of course, when he meets a beautiful woman, she must inevitably fall in love with somebody he just happens to know.

Early on, Hauer lambastes a tax driver for not knowing his way around Paris. The driver protests that he is new, but Hauer is running late and still frustrated. Given that it seems like Paris so small it has a cast of about ten characters overlapping, I can understand why he’d be so upset. These contrivances and coincidences start out charming, but wind up feeling a little bit forced and awkward. They feel “eccentric” for the sake of being “eccentric”, rather than for any other reason.

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Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. Cherchez Hortense is never less than charming. It is witty, and it’s well-acted. The script contains a number of sharply-observed comments and Hauer makes a suitably put-up protagonist. The film stumbles a bit when it tries to go for more obvious comedy. There are two sequences concerning homosexuality that seem to grabbing at especially low-hanging fruit – ha! it’s funny to look at the protagonist who is uncomfortable with guys who like guys! isn’t this hilarious? The film is stronger when it counts on banter and dialogue to earn a few chuckles and giggles.

There’s also a fascinating fixation with oriental cultures. Apparently the area around the Royal Palace is packed with Japanese restaurants. Hauer teaches a course in Asian business. One of his colleagues notes that China is the world’s last major power. Hauer’s father espouses the virtue of exotic Japanese ice cream. When his wife gets a massage, it is – of course – an oriental massage.It fits quite well with the main plot, that is driven by the idea of immigration in modern France – something which has become a more and more important issue for French film-makers.

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You also could argue that the focus on Eastern cultures is an attempt to disguise the movie’s reliance on contrived coincidence as some sort of Asian mysticism. Indeed, Hauer’s own account of how he came to be fixated with Asian culture supports that. It doesn’t quite excuse some of the weirder moments, but it works well enough.

Cherchez Hortense is inoffensive. It’s not bad, but it isn’t especially good, either. It’s light comedy that desperately needs a little bit more weight to hold it down. Bacri does a tremendous job, but there are still moments when it seems like it might get away from him.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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