Under The Rainbow (Au bout du conte)

France (2013) Dir. Agnès Jaoui

Fairy tales are just for kids aren’t they? Ostensibly yes, but their inherent charm and wistful way of creating a warm sense of hope and fulfilment it offers the least of us keeps some adults firmly entrenched in this escapist world.

Twenty-four year-old Laura (Agathe Bonitzer) has recurring dreams of Prince Charming sweeping her off her feet, lamenting how this hasn’t occurred in real life, until she meets struggling musician Sandro (Arthur Dupont). When the relationship reaches the stage where both families meet, Laura is introduced to the enigmatic womaniser Maxime Wolf (Benjamin Biolay) and finds herself falling for him instead.

But there is more. Laura’s divorced aunt Marianne (Agnès Jaoui) takes a shine to Sandro’s divorced father Pierre (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a driving instructor from whom she accepts free lessons. But Pierre is obsessed with the fact his forecast death date is forthcoming while Marianne’s 9 year-old daughter Nina (Serena Legeais) has become a mute religious convert and is awaiting her confirmation.

Sound like two different films in one? There is still more to the plot if you can believe that and therein lies the problem with this post break-up collaboration between former partners Jaoui and Bari. One might assume that this love split was the inspiration for this tale of complicated romances but as we can see from the above synopsis, the couple were not only able to write and star together but play prospective partners to boot.

But that doesn’t solve the problem of the overcrowded script, in terms of both story threads and cast, in which too many subplots and characters get lost along the way, along with the film’s initially quirky and often acerbic humour, which gradually gives way to a dour final act and an unfulfilling, not to mention confusing ending.

The fairy tale motifs are most prevalent in the first half, some subtle, some blatant. One of the more obvious examples is the wittily played out scenario involving Laura and Sandro’s first meeting at a mock ball. Sandro has to pick his mother Jacqueline (Dominique Valadié) up at midnight on his scooter after her night shift, but is mid dance with Laura when he notices the time. Running off without a word, Sandro’s shoe comes off which a bewildered Laura finds.

Luckily she didn’t have to search the land to find Sandro again, bumping into him a she tries fruitlessly to conduct street surveys to supplement his non-income as a musician. A film long theme sees Sandro asking Pierre for a loan for the deposit on a flat but he refuses to share his money, having told no-one about his supposed impending death. This puts a strain on the relationship, serving as one of the more serious subplots.

Elsewhere, Laura’s parents provide another fairy tale staple ripe for satire in the form of her plastic surgery obsessed step-mother Fanfan (Beatrice Rosen), the joke being that despite looking 30 she is actually 62! No love is apparently lost between them and the symbolism of the apple Fanfan gives Laura shouldn’t be too difficult a reference to decipher.

Perhaps less immediate to those who pay little attention to the minutiae is how Laura is wearing a red coat when she first meets Maxime asking directions to Marianne’s house; remember his surname is “Wolf”. Maxime is very sure of himself and talks in riddles, but as a music impresario, his lofty reputation matches his vast ego, putting a huge question mark over the sincerity and altruism of Maxime’s offer to promote Sandro’s orchestra.

Ordinarily this love triangle – quadrangle in fact, as cellist Clémence (Nina Meurisse) appears to hold a flame for Sandro – would alone provide sufficient material for an entire film but as already discussed, Jaoui and Bari saw fit to share the 112 minute runtime with other concerns. The situation with Nina’s religious infatuation is oblique and frankly incongruous, offering little more than a reason to introduce Marianne’s ex-husband.

The pairing of Pierre and Marianne is arguably where the comedy is, albeit laden with pathos and wry giggles. Pierre’s continual despair heading towards his final days is counterbalanced by Marianne’s lack of progress behind the wheel, which should engender frustration instead yields apathy. But, this time together gives Pierre someone to talk to and despite her scatty personality, Marianne proves a valuable confidante.

Whatever brought Jaoui and Bari’s personal relationship to an end hasn’t affected their professional one and the natural chemistry they share shows no signs of being compromised at all. Credit to them both for being able to remain amicable and have enough security in themselves and their own good humour to write for themselves a storyline that forces them to be together on screen.

As a director, Jaoui reveals her strengths when keeping things light, imbuing the comedy with a recognisable Gallic lilt of insouciance and snappy dialogue. The dramatic scenes however lack energy and emotional resonance, and with the second hour abandoning the colourful vibrancy of the fantasy suffused opening, the overall climax is flat and lacking in coherence and suitable resolve of the existing plot threads.

One nice visual touch that is employed a lot during the film is the use of oil painted representations of the frames which seamlessly dissolve into the live action shot, and occasionally vice versa. The first couple of times it makes one wonder if their eyesight is playing tricks on them, the quality of the art is that good.

The overburdened script and muddy conclusion may be confusing to the viewer but it seems the rest of the cast were able to follow and appreciate Jaoui and Bari’s vision, and portray their sadly underdeveloped characters to the best of their abilities.

Under The Rainbow is one of those instances where I don’t know if it was me or the film that is the issue, but what started off a fun idea ended up being something I couldn’t fully appreciate.


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