There is an unwritten rule of European film distribution that comedies struggle to overcome language barriers, so in the UK we only rarely see the sometimes very popular local comedy hits from France, Germany, Italy or Spain. The Online French Film Festival offers a chance to see a range of French films and this year MUBI have streamed a couple of the films on offer. Comme des garçons is, in one sense, very familiar as a sports comedy but one with a serious purpose – always a tricky mix and to complicate things further it is based on real events. The different factors involved in its conception introduce different genre elements and the main task for director Julien Hallard is to keep the different elements working together.
It’s 1969 in Reims, the centre of Champagne, and in an engaging opening sequence we see that all the staff of the local newspaper are glued to transistor radios listening to the unfolding tragedy of their local football team’s relegation to Division 2. Reims was at this point one of the best known and historically successful teams in France. The paper’s young(ish) sports reporter Paul Coutard (Max Boublil) makes a hash of covering the story and his punishment is to organise the paper’s annual charity event alongside his nemesis, the editor’s PA Emmanuelle (Vanessa Guide). Paul decides to try something completely different, a women’s football match. Coutard is a sad character who thinks he is ‘hip’ and initially imagines it will be fun to audition young women for a team and enjoy watching them run around in tiny shorts. I won’t spoil the rest of the narrative which is fairly predictable but I’ll note that the original newspaper scenario seems to be abandoned only to turn up in another guise – Paul’s actual job seems to disappear but his antics with the women’s team become fodder for the tabloids. The comedy becomes a rom-com when Emmanuelle removes her glasses but the sports story, although it utilises several familiar genre narrative devices, doesn’t head for the usual sporting triumph. Instead the contest is really about the struggle to get women’s football taken seriously.
The real historical events do seem to show that France was surprisingly behind most other European countries in the 1960s in the complete lack of any organised women’s football in the face of the intransigence of the national federation to even consider licensing women’s teams. (As in the UK there was a long history of organised women’s football and French and English teams met in front of large crowds in the 1920s but soon after, the national football authorities banned women’s football from professional stadia). The final repertoire that Comme des garçons therefore draws on is the ‘social problem’ of sexism in 1969 – not much different to sexism today. The struggle is represented partly through the comedy and this is where the film does become quite heavy-handed I think. But it did remind me of some of the broader comic moments of 1960s/70s films like Nelly Kaplan’s La fiancée du pirate or François Truffaut’s Une belle fille comme moi (France 1972). It’s modern links are to a film like Populaire (France-Belgium 2012) which is a 1950s set romantic comedy melded with a sport/competition film about ‘speed typing’. That film boasted the star power of Romain Duris and Déborah François and a much stronger aesthetic sense. Comme des garçons has fun with its 1969 vintage vehicles, its pop soundtrack and occasionally with costumes but I didn’t feel a strong sense of time and place. I discovered afterwards that one of the dialogue writers, Claude Le Pape had also worked on Les combattants (France 2014). Perhaps she might have played a bigger writing role? I struggled to read an interview in French with writer-director Julien Hallard and I wasn’t convinced about his overall approach.
The two best-known films focusing on women and football are Bend it Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002) and Offside (Iran 2006), very different films but both successful in attracting audiences and making real statements. They both focus on the young women at the centre of the narrative and have a clear narrative drive with a conviction about where they want to go. Comme des garçons suffers from making the male journalist the protagonist and not having a similarly strong narrative drive. Having said that, it is still an enjoyable film to watch and for UK viewers there is one familiar character and actor. As in Bend it Like Beckham, it is the father, in this case Emmanuelle’s father who will eventually support his daughter. And here dad is played by BBC4’s ‘Inspector Montalbano’ himself, Luca Zingaretti. (I’m not sure the shorts are a good idea Salvo!)
Official trailer (no subtitles):