Not Here To Be Loved (Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé)

France (2005) Dir. Stéphane Brizé

At first glance this French romantic drama suggests a remake of Shall We Dance? a mid-90’s Japanese comedy which was remade by Hollywood a few years later. Despite a central premise revolving around dance lessons, this tale from writer-director Stéphane Brizé is actually a more dour and spikier affair, served up with typical French élan.

Our leading man is 50 year-old Jean-Claude (Patrick Chesnais) a Paris based bailiff who tires of the daily drudgery of climbing many staircases and delivering bad news to non-rent paying tenants. The only respite from his unfulfilling job is the Sundays he spends visiting his brusque and cantankerous father (Georges Wilson) at his care home, having alienated the rest of his family and friends.

Upon the advice of his doctor, Jean-Claude is encouraged to take up some light exercise to soothe a minor heart complaint, so he joins up for lessons at the Tango school opposite his office. There he meets the shy Françoise (Anne Consigny) whom she recognises from her past.

And so we have a plot which is formulaic Hollywood rom com fare but Brizé is more intent on making his cast a saturnine bunch for whom happiness is a dream rather than an achievable state. Even with the doors left wide open for some gentle humour to be injected into the proceedings, the offer is never taken up and we’re left to watch a rather gloomy tale unfold.

The film has a relatively slow build which for an 89 minute run time should be a risky prospect, but Brizé and co-writer Juliette Sales use this time to set up Jean-Claude’s story and introduce us to the tarnished key players of the story before the drama truly sets in. For starters Jean-Claude has been deeply affected by the misery his job inflicts on his victims, making him as truculent as his father on occasion. He can’t even offer any positive encouragement for his own son (Cyril Couton) who also works at the office but would rather grow plants.

While Françoise provides the beacon of hope and prospective love interest for Jean-Claude she too is not experiencing much happiness as the reason she is taking Tango lessons is for the first dance at her upcoming wedding. Unfortunately despite his promises, aspiring writer Thierry (Lionel Abelanski) is unable to find inspiration to write but can conjure up excuses for not attending the classes.

Thierry is a handy excuse to fend off the advances of a lecherous class mate (Olivier Claverie) but he vanishes from Françoise’s mind when it comes to dancing with Jean-Claude.

A brief romance does present itself to this May to December couple but it is short lived leading to the crisis point of the story. From hereon in the script caves into the pressure of the melodrama conventions and does little to offer any surprises, not that that in itself was much of a surprise to begin with. However the bitter taste of the various family situations is enough to save this from plummeting into the depths of shallow and manipulative sentimentality.

If the title seems inappropriate for a story based around dancing then bear in mind the Tango lessons are a mere conduit for bringing these people to our attention before we explore their unhappy lives. Where there is connection with the aforementioned Shall We Dance? is in how the Tango lessons are supposed to be for the sake of dancing and not for finding love.

It also applies more to Jean-Claude and his father both of whom put themselves in positions which make them unpopular – Jean-Claude with his lawful but anti-social job and his father with his grouchy attitude.

This creates an interesting dichotomy regarding Jean-Claude’s two main relationships – with Françoise they are strangers who are placed in physically close situation where after a while they don’t have to speak to communicate, the movement so the dancing says it all; Jean-Claude and his father talk a lot but never communicate anything and when they do it is negative, such as Jean-Claude’s tennis trophies which his father nonchalantly announces he threw away.

Brizé’s swerving the audience by not delivering the gentle rom-com we expected from the opening scene might not win him many fans but he keeps us watching to the end with his well crafted characters and subtleties in the story progression. There is no wasted space in this film but the brief run time means that certain areas are not afforded much exploration and as a result, their development is rushed, Françoise’s wedding woes being a prime example.

The three main characters are given a chance to sufficiently endear themselves to the audience while others such Thierry and the Tango class flirt are reduced to cookie cutter periphery cast members despite their relevance to the plot. Thankfully the two principal leads take advantage of their top tier status to fully immerse themselves into their roles.

Veteran Patrick Chesnais has that perfect hangdog expression face for such a grumpy persona as Jean-Claude’s and slips so easily into the role that he often seems unaware that he is supposed to be acting and emoting. Anne Consigny is a revelation here, able to say so much by doing so little, the entire gamut of Françoise’s feelings all displayed through a simple look or facial expression. When she is happy her eyes sparkle, when she is sad or hurt the life seems to literally drain from her whole body.

Threatening to outdo the pair of them is Georges Wilson, whose infrequent appearances are a painful but incisive masterclass in elderly cynicism and lonely curmudgeonly behaviour.

It’s fair to say that Not Here To Be Loved isn’t going to be the film some might think it will be. This works in its favour as much as it works against it, going in one direction for the bulk of the run time then ending predictably in the end final act. Still, it’s an interesting and engaging if maudlin watch.