In The Courtyard (Dans la cour)

France (2014) Dir. Pierre Salvadori

Known for his glossy and amiable comedies such as Après Vous, Priceless and Beautiful Lies, French Corsican director Pierre Salvadori returns with a film which is rich with the inherent Gallic charm of his previous works but with an air of melancholy rarely seen for this dusky tale of understanding human foibles.

Antoine (Gustave Kervern) is a forty-something rock singer suffering from insomnia and other deleterious nuisances which force him to cancel a gig at the last second and abandon his musical career. Wanting a simple and less strenuous life, Antoine is able to score the job of caretaker at an old apartment building run by husband and wife Serge (Féodor Atkine) and Mathilde (Catherine Deneuve).

Despite his lack of qualifications or indeed competence, Antoine settles quickly into the role and is highly regarded by the idiosyncratic tenants, including druggie Stéphane (Pio Marmaï) and resident fusspot Maillard (Nicolas Bouchaud). Meanwhile Serge refuses to indulge Mathilde’s concerns that the building will collapse due to a crack in the wall, so Mathilde turns to Antoine for support instead.

This isn’t a spoiler but the relationship between Antoine and Mathilde which grows exponentially over the course of the film isn’t a romantic one under any circumstances. While this seems to defy the template which Salvadori has set himself in his other works, it is a welcome change of scenario for both Salvadori and the audience, and benefits hugely from this lack of predictability.

Even if we were to entertain the notion of “opposites attract” to justify such a hackneyed development – Antoine is a lonely, hirsute bear of a man, Mathilde an energetic married senior citizen – it would undermine the gravity of the internal issues which drive the characters and forges their bond.

That said the basis of this bond is ironically contrary – Antoine is looking for solitude while Mathilde feels isolated as Serge dismisses her worries about the apartment’s condition as delusional folly. All he sees are cracks in the walls which can be covered with wallpaper; in fact they are a metaphor for Mathilde’s declining mental stability, the real concern for Serge whose obstinacy is less ignorance and more fear for when he face the inevitable.

Perhaps the cracks are unsubtle in their symbolism but they provide the first step in bringing the Mathilde-Antoine team together for the first time. Keen to stay on his employer’s side, Antoine does what Mathilde asks of him yet hides it from Serge, refusing to be drawn into the battle. He does however recognise that Mathilde needs a reassuring perspective which Antoine gives her, but is her really the best person to be handing out such advice?

The way the character is drawn is that his mighty shoulders are there to carry the weight of every else’s burdens yet no-one recognises his. As mentioned earlier Maillard complains about everything, from the piles of bikes in the yard to a dog barking at night which no-one else can hear. In reminding us this is comedy, the dog does exist but Antoine denies this.

It is a black Labrador owned by a cult weirdo Lev (Oleg Kupchik) who Antoine lets sleep rough in the storage shed when Lev is kicked out of his hostel. If Lev is not around Antoine takes him in, which leads to a surreal moment when a stoned Antoine and Stéphane let the dog loose around a scale model architect Maillard has left him, and they witness this destruction as if it were a Godzilla-esque demolition of the city!

Fans of Salvadori might not appreciate the lack of laughs and serious tone of this film, although this is far from humour free, it isn’t belly laugh funny either. Most of these moments derive from the displays of the varying characteristics of the tenants, such as Stéphane’s drug addled oblivion, Maillard’s increasing frustration with the invisible dog, and Lev’s broken French peddling of his cult promotional materials.

But it is through Antoine’s laconic body language and dour face buried beneath an unkempt beard that keeps thing rooted in the grave reality of a troubled soul in which there is little comedy to be found, not even black or ironic humour. Similarly Mathilde’s slowly degenerating condition is handled with sensitivity and respectful detachment, avoiding going too far in portraying her as complete liability.

Like a time bomb we wait for Antoine to explode and unleash his anger on everyone, thus setting him back to square one without employment, a home or any future prospects. However Salvadori is actually smarter than that, teasing our expectations of the well trodden melodrama formula tremendously before whipping the rug from under out feet, while still delivering the same message without excess fuss.

If the dour subject matter and heavy aura sounds off-putting then the choice of cast should be enough to peak your interest. Catherine Deneuve earned her 12th Cezar (French Oscars) nomination for her role as Mathilde and it is easy to see why. She approaches the role without concern for her reputation as a glamour puss, embracing the homeliness of the character whilst subtly essaying the effects of the fragility which plagues her judgement and actions.

By contrast, yet perfectly complimenting Deneuve’s openly sympathetic performance, Gustave Kervern reigns in his usual comic tendencies to deliver a quietly powerful turn as Antoine, being paradoxically open yet ambiguous about what drives him and how he is suffering behind his helpful and loyal exterior. His burly physical appearance is great in deceiving us all to the soft and easily hurt man inside.

At 93 minutes In the Courtyard doesn’t outstay its welcome yet one does feel a bit more insight into the psychological trauma of the central issues would have given this a killer punch. Not Salvadori’s most immediate work in lieu of his previous quaint comedies but Deneuve’s marquee name will assuredly encourage interest and her performance will provide the reward for those who do choose to watch.


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