What does ‘French comedy’ mean to you? Back in the 1950s and 60s it wasn’t unusual in the UK to see films featuring comic actors such as Bourvil, Fernandel and Jacques Tati. In the 1990s the Astérix films and other spoofs like Les Visiteurs (1993) came over. We have also seen rom-coms, often with Audrey Tautou or Charlotte Gainsbourg. But many French comedies never make it across the Channel. Just as with German, Spanish and Italian comedies, distributors feel that the different cultural basis for comedy means such films wouldn’t sell in the UK. As a consequence, I’ve not seen as many French comedies as I should and I was intrigued as to what to expect from Perdrix. The title refers to the name of a family in a small village in the Vosges mountains close to the border with Germany – My French Film Festival is certainly a visual treat in terms of landscapes. ‘Perdrix’ translates as ‘partridge’ in English and thinking about Steve Coogan’s creation of Alan Partridge for British film and TV might not be wholly inappropriate since writer-director Erwan Le Duc spent four years as a teenager living in London in the early 1990s. He tells us in the Press Notes that he enjoyed the absurdist and surreal qualities of some British TV comedy but my feeling is that Perdrix is refreshingly individual in its mixture of elements – and the characters are nothing like Alan Partridge!
The film opens with a 30-something woman driving a car stuffed with her possessions. She stops at a picnic site at the edge of a forest and gets out to write in her diary, foolishly leaving the car door open and the keys in the ignition. In a short while she looks up to see a nude woman leap into the car and drive away. Juliette (Maud Wyler) has lost everything and she heads down to the nearest village to report the car hi-jack. In the police station she is informed that this is the work of a group of ‘revolutionary nudists’ who live in the forest. Juliette is not very impressed with the calm and methodical Capitaine Pierre Perdrix (Swann Arlaud), the head of the local gendarmerie. Later she turns up at his house he feels he must invite her in to ‘meet the family’.
I won’t spoil any more of the plot. The Perdrix family is certainly odd. The matriarch Thérèse, played by the always fabulous Fanny Ardant, still pines for her husband who died more than twenty years ago. His portrait dominates the dining room and she diverts herself by running a radio talk show. Pierre’s brother Julien (JuJu) is a worm-researcher rarely engaging with his young daughter Marion who dreams of escape and a sports scholarship and in the meantime practises her table tennis. Her mother appears to have escaped the family group. The police station to some extent mirrors the Perdrix home. There are seemingly far too many gendarmes for a small village, each with their own quirks. As well as the nudists there is a fourth group which I won’t reveal and the four groups interact in various ways (and each develops a narrative of their own) to provide the entertaining backdrop to the central narrative of the attraction between Juliette and Pierre. This starts hesitantly and in the best rom-com traditions has its ups and downs before a key scene in the village bar-disco and a beautifully choreographed and unusual dance sequence cements the possibility of a long-term relationship. Pierre is well-drawn as a man who has tried to keep the family together and has succeeded in his police work, but has become too settled in his ways and needs somebody like Juliette to shake him up.
I’m not sure I found the film ‘laugh out loud’ funny apart from one scene but I did find it engaging and charming. The two leads are very good. I like that they aren’t the usual characters for a rom-com. This is Erwan Le Duc’s first feature after several shorts. Most of these feature Maud Wyler so playing an unusual character like Juliette would not have been so much of a surprise for her. The one short she didn’t appear in was 2011’s Le commissaire Perdrix ne fait pas le voyage pour rien which features a police chief named Perdrix and a junior officer called Webb (the same name as Juliette, but this one is male). Le Duc’s shorts received prizes and this first feature was screened at Cannes and nominated for awards at various festivals. Given the state of French cinema releases in the UK, it is doubtful if this will appear on release in UK cinemas, but if it does sneak out on VOD or DVD I would recommend a look. It is intelligent, entertaining and generally uplifting.
Here’s a clip from the film showing the initial meeting between Pierre and Juliette: