Amidst a riot of frogs, poison apples, wolves and fairy godmothers, Agnès Jaoui’s Under The Rainbow puts fairytale romance to the test.
Once In A Lullaby by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s perhaps due to Charles Perrault’s exquisitely illustrated Contes that the fairytale has managed to snag such a front-row seat for itself in the French imagination, but even in the more realist arena of cinema, the fairytale film has become an established genre in France. From the fantastic and colourful excesses of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle Et La Bête and Jacques Demy’s Peau d’Âne to Cathérine Breillat’s austere feminist reworkings such as Bluebeard, the French fairytale film has become a reliable cinematic source of cathartic enjoyment and visual pleasure. Agnès Jaoui’s Under The Rainbow on the other hand mixes the fairytale into the everyday, pitting the romantic notions of a twenty-something girl longing for her Prince Charming against the realities of love, marriage, parenting and our own fickle desires. But as the habitually sardonic Jaoui gives life the fairytale treatment, can we really expect a happy ever after?
Laura (Agathe Bonitzer) dreams of meeting her Prince Charming. Literally. In a forest, reaching towards her while standing beneath an angel. But then one day, she meets the man of her dreams at a ball – in the shape of Sandro (Arthur Dupont) standing beneath the statue of an angel, and who disappears at the stroke of midnight to pick up his mother, even losing a shoe in the process. He’s at odds with his father Pierre (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a driving instructor who is suffering from death anxiety, after having been reminded by fortune-teller Madame Irma at his father’s funeral that he would die in only a few weeks, on 14th March. After finding each other again on the street (thanks to Sandro’s part-time job conducting street surveys), Laura and Sandro announce their engagement. But it’s not long before Laura meets composer Maxime Wolff (Benjamin Biolay) in the forest, causing her to wonder whether she wants such a fairytale romance after all.
The French title Au Bout Du Conte or At The End Of The Fairytale gives a better idea of what to expect from Agnès Jaoui’s fourth feature, which takes place both in and around Paris and in a land far, far away. For not only are there all-seeing deer and ominous owls prowling the woods, but everyday objects, such as a children’s dancing teddy bear or a remote-controlled balloon fish, are through sheer incongruousness, conjured into life, running through Jaoui’s fantasy comedy with careless abandon. Opening with a dream sequence in which protagonist Laura, in a blue satin princess dress, imagines finding her Prince Charming in the woods, we are then plunged into an in-between world where romantic fantasy meets plain old reality. And playfully riffing on everything from Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella to Sleeping Beauty and Bluebeard, Under The Rainbow is a thoroughly enjoyable fairytale pastiche – a game of references, where every poisoned apple or comatose princess comes with a nod and a wink.
There is however an underside to Laura and Sandro’s fairytale romance – not only does the princess decide she actually quite likes methamphetamines and the love-em-and-leave-em, vulpine type, Sandro also comes to realise that the love of his life didn’t magically appear at a ball, but was there all along in the shape of the not-so-clement Clémence. There’s also Laura’s aunt Marianne (Agnès Jaoui) and her ex-husband Éric (Laurent Poitrenaux), an older incarnation of Laura and Sandro – the romantic fantasist and the dependable, down-to-earth dad who can’t quite manage to keep their marriage together. And then there’s arch-realist Pierre, who never wanted his son Sandro nor any other latecomer ankle-biters requiring house training – in a new relationship but unable to give up his long-cherished independence and peace. Such is life on the other side of the happy ending, but culminating in a charge through Paris’s underworld, as father and son make peace and Marianne finds fulfilment and independence driving her long-abandoned steed, there’s a chance that trouble really does melt like lemon drops and dreams really do come true.
Thanks to a sassy and witty script from writing partners Bacri and Jaoui, Under The Rainbow goes beyond its rom-com and fairytale pastiche limitations, even poking the finger at themselves. Agathe Bonitzer and Arthur Dupont are suitably flighty and dreamy, even if Benjamin Biolay’s gruff lone wolf doesn’t quite hit the mark. But despite all of the film’s clever references as it takes the fairytale to task, it’s Jaoui and Bacri that make Au Bout Du Conte so enjoyable – their scenes together both irrepressibly human and bitterly dour. It’s no surprise that Jaoui incarnates the film’s fairy godmother, making the magic happen – directing children in an after-school play. But as the credits roll and the fairy dust fades, Under The Rainbow shows that while a Princess and her Prince Charming might not always be well cast, in the real world we can sometimes get it right. Once upon a time.
Under The Rainbow is released on 27th June 2014 in the UK