La Californie

February 7, 2010By Tom RidgwayArchive

Deadly Serious

The splendid Nathalie Baya is great at playing a drunk.

Last week I went to see two vastly different, yet similar, films. Both were well-written, well-directed, well-acted – and both were deadly dull. The first was Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, in which Eastwood’s occasional tendency to plodding seriousness killed his film; the second was Jacques Fieschi’s La Californie.

Over the years, Fieschi has written films for some great French directors, including Maurice Pialat, Claude Sautet, Olivier Assayas and Nicole Garcia; he, too, is a “Serious Filmmaker.” Proof, if it were needed, comes with his first film as writer-director: La Californie is a film that’s easy to admire and almost impossible to love.

The film tells the story of Maguy (a splendid Nathalie Baye), a rich widow living in the hills above Cannes with a group of hangers-on, among them Mirko (Roschdy Zem) and Stefan (Rasha Bukvic), two Serbs who escaped the war and stayed on in Cannes, that Mecca of sleaze and designer-label tat.

The gang in the house spends Maguy’s money on champagne, parties and clothes; she lets them because she has a desperate terror of being alone. This delightful microcosm is upset when Maguy’s daughter, Hélène (Ludivine Sagnier) turns up. As you might expect, the center does not hold.

Based on a story by Georges Simenon, La Californie has two basic problems. First, there is no character, apart from Stefan, with whom you can empathize, let alone like. This might not matter in a film with more action, but in a character piece it proves difficult for the audience. Maguy, for example, is a woman afraid of life – men, her family, her friends, herself – so she gets drunk (Baye does a very good drunk) and screams (that, too). After 90 minutes, this begins to be ever so slightly boring. While you can understand each character’s motives, you can’t really care about them and switch off.

Secondly, the film appears convinced that it has more to say than it does. The lives of these vauriens are perfectly well-sketched out and put on the screen; Cannes’ sleazy, unpleasant atmosphere is there for all to see; and the world-to-itself atmosphere of the house is nicely evoked, but it just doesn’t add up to much.

La Californie (the title refers to a neighborhood in Cannes) is a well-made film with good performances, but its sheer seriousness gives the impression that the filmmakers believe that they’re saying something profound about life, about Europe, about our society. They’re not. Rich people attract hangers-on who like money, says the film, and they are not very nice people. Earth-shattering.

Tom Ridgway

© 2007 Paris Update

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