Let It Rain (Parlez-moi de la pluie)

letstalkabouttherain.jpg
Artificial Eye Film Company
Agnès Jaoui/France 2008

French art-house cinema doesn’t always have the greatest reputation. Usually it’s either a lot of naked people being very “artistic”, or a dreary slog through some hopelessly depressing story meant to drain all emotions from the viewers. I am so pleased to report that Agnès Jaoui has found another way.

Of course, I’ve made this discovery eight years after she was nominated for an Oscar for The Taste of Others, but better late than never. Let’s Talk about the Rain details the professional and emotional upheavals in a tight-knit group of people in southern France: Agathe Villanova (Jaoui) is a feminist writer entering into politics who returns to her family’s summer home with her sister Florence (Pascale Aebillot) and family to sort through their dead mother’s effects. While she is in town, she agrees to be interviewed for a documentary about powerful women made by Michel (Jean-Pierre Bacri, the co-writer and Jaoui’s husband) and Karim (Jamel Debbouze). It’s a favor to Karim, the struggling son of the family’s beloved housekeeper Mimouna (Mimouna Hadji). These, of course, are not the only entanglements.

This movie is like a family holiday that you can sum up to acquaintances in two or three sentences but spend hours agonizing about to your closest friends. The layers and little incidents add up to more than messy, complicated real life, enabling us all to build a clear portrait of the people involved while managing a clear story arc – a difficult trick to pull off, but they’ve done it. For example, in a brilliantly concise characterization, Florence’s insufferable husband (Guillaume De Tonquedec) reacts to Michel saving his son from choking by complaining about the technique used. Karim and Agathe have a small argument about a job that she lined up for him, which subtly and very smartly shows how insidious racism can be, and how some people just don’t get it. Michel’s personal and professional problems are neatly crystallized – although he’s not aware of it – when he can’t explain a dessert on a restaurant menu to his son. All the while, Karim and Michel try to work out how best to angle their interviews with Agathe, arguing over their interviewing techniques and tone, and – if they’re lucky – remember to switch on the camera.

These are small things, but they can be hugely important. What I liked about this film is that it makes an asset out of its smallness. Mostly set at the summer home, the excellent weather and gorgeous sunlight offers a sense of relaxation, freedom and openness in contrast to the subtle tensions between the characters. The political rally at which Agathe is due to make her launch speech is merely foreshadowed and implied, but its importance matches the conversations shown on screen. There are children in the film, but just as the big issues Jaoui raises – feminism, racism, adultery, relationships between women and men – are at the dinner table, they are not the focus of the attention. This unusual subtlety should be cherished.

Bacri and Jaoui know their milieu back to front. For example, in an accurately trendy touch, the little center of the christening scene is named Framboise, or Raspberry. It also maximizes a cast of faces who are well known within France, although perhaps not internationally. For example, Debbouze is best known outside of France from his role in Amélie as Lucien, the simple shopkeeper; inside France he’s a huge comedy star on a par with Eddie Murphy at the beginning of his career (the race/crossover analogy is appropriate too). His character is thoughtful and tense, quietly defeated by how others treat him but complaining only on behalf of his mother. It’s an understated but terrific performance.

Oh, I enjoyed this film. It’s such a treat to see something where every person is fully rounded and complicated and exasperating and human, a plot is in place that’s both interesting and totally plausible, and where paying attention to what happens to make you understand – if not admire – the choices these people make. The title’s from a French love song where the singer wants to focus on the bad things instead of those which make him happy. Although there are no huge resolutions, no ending song-and-dance, all the characters end in a different and wholly believable places from the beginning. It’s the closest to real life I’ve seen on screen in a long time.

© 2008 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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