Jalouse (Jealous)

France (2017) Dir. David & Stéphane Foenkinos

Jealousy is a terrible thing but resides within us whether we like to admit it or not. Some may claim they don’t ever feel jealous and maybe it is hidden deeper for them but it will surface at least once in our lives. If this latest film from the Foenkinos Brothers is to be believed, jealousy in woman can be caused by a prelude of the menopause. Who knew?

Nathalie Pécheux (Karin Viard) is a divorced literature professor living with her 18 year-old daughter Mathilde (Dara Tombroff) in Paris. Mathilde is training to be a ballerina, her svelte like poise suddenly becoming an inexplicable cause of resentment for her mother. Nathalie is also bitter towards ex-husband Jean-Pierre (Thibault de Montalembert) for marrying the younger Isabelle (Marie-Julie Baup).

At school, a new younger teacher Miss Pick (Anaïs Demoustier) irritates Nathalie with her instant rapport with her colleagues, whilst even her supportive best friend Sophie (Anne Dorval) incurs unnecessary lashings from Nathalie’s acid tongue. Seeking medical advice, Nathalie is told that this is a result of the oncoming menopause but this is not what she wants to hear, and her continuing rude behaviour begins to drive Nathalie to loneliness.

I’m no doctor so don’t shoot the messenger but a bit of research reveals that whilst it is possible the menopause or the build up to it can lead to feelings of jealousy in women, the numbers are pretty small, and the cases are rare and not so extreme, so statistically it is possible but not probable.

To essentially use it as the crux of the matter for a middle-aged woman going off the rails in a comedy drama is therefore be seen as a bit of an exaggeration and borderline straw clutching writing on the part of the Foenkinos. If we are to take this idea as the films way of highlighting a rather obscure side effect of the menopause, it is hard to tell if Jalouse is helping or mocking women in this state.

But it’s written by men and while the female characters are all strong willed women whose lives don’t necessarily revolve around men, there is notable lack sensitivity in making this a plot point. I mention this because it is probably best to ignore this (in fact the script does – Nathalie’s doctor ascribes the menopause as a cause but offers no further guidance) and instead follow the story of an inherently flawed woman.

Jalouse opens with Mathilde’s 18th birthday party yet all Nathalie can do is lament that no-one passed any compliments her way, instead they were drooling over her daughter. From here, Nathalie gets meaner and meaner towards those she encounters – she mistakes Miss Pick for a student on her first day because of her youthful looks, then slaps Mathilde after an argument over her staying out a little late.

Mathilde’s ballet aspiration subplot doubles as a barometer for Nathalie’s mental decline, the stages of her progress at the auditions providing a point for something to go wrong. This sets up the relationship with Mathilde as Nathalie’s redemption goal, hitting rock bottom after a critical culinary accident sees mother and daughter becoming estranged from one another.

We are offered no explanation for why Nathalie becomes such the vicious, bile-spewing harridan she does but it is painful viewing. She is offered the chance of romance with a friend of Sophie’s, Sébastien (Bruno Todeschini) but blows it when she thinks he was ogling Mathilde and throw out of her apartment mid meal. And she wonders why he won’t return her calls?

Nathalie’s behaviour is not limited to spontaneous fits of paranoia either, going so far as to pose as Isabelle to cancel her and Jean-Pierre’s upcoming holiday so when they arrive at the airport they are not listed! Under other circumstances, this might have provided some naughty comedy but in the context of this story, it is shamefully vindictive and paints Nathalie as some with serious issues that need addressing.

And this is part of the problem with Jalouse – it is billed as a comedy drama but laughs are very thin on the ground, or more accurately, they are nonexistent. Aside from a couple of sly grin moments, like Nathalie smoking a joint before meeting her psychiatrist or her fumbling with the time limits of a voicemail message, the tone her is too gnarly to even be classified as black comedy.

Subtlety is also missing from Nathalie’s descent into misanthropic self-destruction, again a product of a male perspective. The closest thing to allusion comes when Nathalie buys a John Coltrane album and the shop owner insists she buys vinyl to hear it “for real”, except she hasn’t owned a turntable in 20 years. After being told she has to move forward with her life, she is now being told to go backwards to reap the benefits?

The final act is by the numbers melodrama as Nathalie hits her nadir and starts to mend broken bridges, thankfully avoiding the lachrymose, sentimental conclusion of Hollywood to show that long journeys being with single steps. In that respect, a full on happy ending would have been wholly inappropriate in sending out the wrong message given Nathalie’s behaviour, but lessons are seen to have been learned.

Whilst she may not be as well known as her contemporaries over here, Karin Viard is a reliable ticket seller in her native and very underrated as an actress. For the most part Nathalie is a relentlessly reprehensible character and very uncomfortable to watch in digging herself deeper into holes with friends, family, and colleagues. Yet Viard’s innate charisma makes this cruel version a compelling figure, deftly transitioning into someone we unexpectedly find ourselves pitying and wishing well for.  

A competently made film, the Foenkinos are lucky they had someone of the talent and calibre of Viard, Anne Dorval, and the whole cast to elevate Jalouse above the clumsy scripting, making it easier to digest in this current sensitive climate.