Souvenir (Cert 12)
1 Disc (Distributor: Studiocanal) Running Time: 87 minutes approx.
When an actor has played practically every aberrant, enigmatic and emotionally tortured role possible what is there left to do? If you are irrepressible modern French legend Isabelle Huppert the answer is simple – you play a washed up pop singer! Not since a few bars in Ozon’s 8 Women has La Huppert’s singing voice been heard by this writer. This could be interesting…
Huppert plays Lilliane Cheverny, a forlorn worker in a factory that makes pâté meals, mostly ignored by her co-workers until a young temp Jean (Kévin Azaïs) arrives and catches her eye. Coincidentally Jean has his eye on Lilliane too but for a different reason – he recognises her as Laura, the once popular singer who thirty years earlier came second in the European(!) Song Contest.
Lilliane denies this but Jean’s persistence pays off and he even manages to persuade to her to sing at his boxing club’s annual party, on the proviso of no press. Unfortunately a DJ friend of Jean’s leaked the news and soon the former singer turned pâté packer is public property again. When Jean loses his big boxing match, he decides to switch gears and become Lilliane’s manager to launch her comeback.
Writer and director Bavo Defurne said quite explicitly that he wanted to make a “Sunday afternoon” film with Souvenir (the title of Laura’s contest losing song); one has to assume he meant something light to put in the DVD player rather than watch on TV as couple of (non-nude) sex scenes and a bath scene wouldn’t exactly suit BBC or ITV’s daytime schedules.
Otherwise this is essentially rather light and undemanding stuff, which for an artiste the calibre and reputation of Huppert must have been the equivalent of a frontline war veteran finally getting to take a leisurely stroll in a quiet park. That said, Huppert is still able to bring her default intensity to this role that demands the audience applies the same suspension of disbelief here that they would to a sci-fi fantasy film.
Thanks to Huppert’s trademark commanding performance that is easy to do; Jean’s ill-advised 70’s porno moustache on the other hand makes Lilliane’s attraction to him less believable. Setting that aside, Jean is able to discern the Lilliane/Laura connection because his father Eddy (Jan Hammenecker) was a huge fan and it would appear that this is either genetic or absorbed via osmosis.
Inevitably Jean and Lilliane become a couple despite the obvious age gap with him being 22 and her being… older (Huppert may be 63 but she doesn’t look it, making the thirty year singing break perfectly plausible). Jean wants to be a pro-boxer but his easy defeat in a big fight rocks his confidence. Once the news of Laura makes it to TV, a career revival is planned with Jean handling the business end.
Because Defurne wants to keep things light the trajectory of the plot is relatively safe and predictable while the brisk run time of 87 minutes means it unfolds at a rapid pace, skipping many formalities along the way. This also makes much of the humour and plot conventions easy to foresee, such as the montage of poorly attended or ill-fitting gigs Laura plays on her comeback trail, and the inevitable relationship breakdown upon her revived success.
And that becomes something of a cavil for this film since these developments demand time to play out for maximum effect; instead Jean goes from zero to jealous inside three minutes. The cause is Liliane opting to enter the search for the French entry for the upcoming European Song Contest (a trademark issue might in effect but that doesn’t stop the ABBA references), for which she turns to her ex-husband/manager Tony Jones (Johan Leysen) for help. Now living the life of Riley, Tony not only writes the song for Lilliane but is also on the judging panel for the contest.
Sadly a potential conflict of interest/corruption scandal, not to mention to a rekindling of the ex-couple’s erstwhile frisson doesn’t occur despite being a gimme, which again might be due to the run time and Defune’s intent on providing a feel good film. Under any other circumstances this is ripe for some hard-hitting drama even in a light comic setting like this, and it is not hard to feel slightly robbed by this.
Even with this blatant avoidance of any risk taking (bar the sex scenes) Defune does present us with an amiable and breezy yarn, suffused with that esoteric Gallic charm and élan. Despite such broad strokes on a small canvas, Defune is able to paint a picture capable of holding our attention long enough to appreciate it for what it has to offer without the headache of wondering if it is art or not.
Huppert is as ever a marvel, her beguiling and mesmerising presence is not in the least dulled by such a comparatively tame role. She does her own singing, which is competent but never stretched to expose its weakness, and the songs, no matter how anachronistic they are, even for Euro(vision) pop, are suited to her quiet but decidedly sultry voice and the enigmatically expressive hand movements.
We can lament the missed opportunity to deliver a playful satire on the music industry but Spinal Tap already has that covered. At its most pure, this is an everyday tale of everyday folk with Lilliane’s former career being that extra wafer in the ice cream to make the day feel just a bit different for once. Laura could have been Eurovision’s answer to Norma Desmond but the idea is we are supposed to like her, and we do.
It may not seem like your typical Isabelle Huppert vehicle but it only takes a matter of moments before it becomes obvious that only she could pull it off so convincingly. Ultimately we can say Defune has succeeded in making his Sunday afternoon film with Souvenir, offering a suitably undemanding and relaxing distraction of pure confection.
5.1 Dolby Digital
Rating – ***
Man In Black