With the fate of a young woman hanging on a middle-aged nobody, Bonitzer’s Looking For Hortense is a rather bloodless comedy on husbands and wives, fathers and sons.
A Flea In Her Ear by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Opening with a rehearsal of The Cherry Orchard, presided over by Kristin Scott Thomas as stage director Iva, Pascal Bonitzer’s Looking For Hortense throws us immediately into the twilight of last days. And it’s not just the end of a marriage. Like Chekhov’s play, Cherchez Hortense is a tale of citizens old and new – immigration and residence permits replacing the emancipation of serfs but pulled similarly taut with a loaded gun, seen but not fired. Straddling the same awkward line between tragedy and comedy, Looking For Hortense however reconfigures adultery and the break-up of a long-term relationship into the start of something new. A man’s story with women at its heart, Pascal Bonitzer’s film is a French farce at a human pace and a very old fashioned “cherchez la femme”.
Kissing in the car on the way home from rehearsal, Iva (Kristin Scott Thomas) finds herself attracted to her leading man Antoine. At home, her long-term partner and professor in Chinese business culture Damien (Jean-Pierre Bacri) looks after their son Noé, frequents the local bistro Chez Casimir and bumps into attractive bookshop browser and restaurant dishwasher Aurore (Isabelle Carré). Damien has been delegated to ask his father a favour – to plead on behalf of Serbian family friend Zorica Velickovic who faces deportation. But he botches it, overpowered by his father’s time-pressed self-importance and distracted by his homosexual leanings. Damien attends to his suicidal friend Lobatch (taking his gun) and expels his wife from the family home when he finds out she’s having an affair. And, as he and Aurore get closer, he learns that she is in fact Zorica, and her fate is in his hands.
It’s almost baffling that Kristin Scott Thomas would accept to play the role of a philandering wife and neglectful mother (even if she does do a brilliant line in imperious, whimsical director), and Looking For Hortense is very much a man’s film. Damien swings from one relationship into another – out of the tedium of long-term cohabitation, long made stale by parenting, work and the daily grind, and into romance, mutual (spiritual) attraction and marriage (made necessary by the Interior Ministry, which demands Aurore be expelled now she’s no longer married to a Frenchman). Yet despite these women of polar opposites, the fairer sex is neither the problem nor the solution, but rather symptoms of Damien’s growing awareness of his loveless, taken-for-granted partnership and his gradual slip into a modern love affair. Jean-Pierre Bacri provides his familiar bemused, head-scratching shtick as a lovable shmuck and Isabelle Carré as Aurore is charmingly (if slightly queasily) esoteric. But hampered by an interminably dull script, this would-be farce turns into a mere opening and closing of doors.
The momentum, such as it is, is provided by Damien’s attempts to speak to his father – a judge at the Palais Royal, and there is a slight nod to the father-and-son theme; Damien is cowed by his distant and capricious father while his own relationship with Noé is marked by a tender closeness, the stay-at-home dad tucking his son in before lights-out and protecting him from his mother’s fecklessness. Guilt, in Pascal Bonitzer’s Cherchez Hortense is pushed onto the other sex or another generation – his father’s undisclosed homosexual tendencies the source not only of a titillating curiosity that prevents Damien from asking his father the right questions, but also of his parents’ latter-marriage break-up. And Hortense himself, bathetically easy to pin down with a simple phone call, is another effeminate Establishment man who refuses to make promises to the everyman’s humble entreaties. Humiliated, life is a perennial battle of wills between the generations, like in Damien’s dream, where as one climbs on board the metaphorical tram of life, the other falls off.
Surrounded by a flotsam of shifting identities, Damien, the cultural connoisseur, finds himself all at sea. And with neither the lively tempo nor the enjoyable pell-mell confusion of a farce, Looking For Hortense carves out an awkward space as a ponderous tragicomedy – as a husband learns to contemplate (like the Chinese man watching a tree’s rustling leaves from the station platform) life’s deeper meanings. It’s stagey, forced and at times awkward, but nevertheless erudite, Pascal Bonitzer’s Looking For Hortense a rigorous deconstruction of a comedy of errors.
Looking For Hortense is released on 9th August 2013 in the UK