The dearth of interesting-sounding French movies playing in Paris last week led me to take pot luck and choose to see the next French film being shown in the cinema I was passing one evening. And am I glad that that film happened to be La Reine des Pommes (named after a song by Lio), directed and written by and starring Valérie Donzelli (I noticed from the credits at the end that she was even listed as jointly responsible for the costumes, but perhaps she simply wore her own clothes…).
On the surface, the story is predictable, about a woman in her early thirties called Adèle who attempts to recover after being dumped by the love of her life, Mathieu. But Donzelli’s direction takes this conventional tale in directions that are both quirky (in the best sense of the word) and original. Adèle moves in with a distant cousin, Rachel (played with gorgeous panache by Béatrice de Staël), who finds her a job as a babysitter and advises her that the best way to get over her ex is by sleeping with various men. We then witness Adèle’s encounters with a range of men: an idealistic young student, Pierre; a married bourgeois, Jacques, whose child Adèle babysits; and the louche Paul, with whom Adèle immediately has a close connection, but who turns out to be less interested in a meaningful relationship than in engaging in various voyeuristic games with her. Donzelli’s masterstroke is to have all the love interests (including Adèle’s former boyfriend) played by one actor, Jérémie Elkaïm, who manages to transform himself from eager and bookish innocence to disconcerting seediness with extraordinary ease.
By choosing a style that is burlesque and deliberately anti-realist, Donzelli gives the movie both a touchingly old-fashioned and unworldly atmosphere. Although she is clearly influenced by the films of Jacques Demy, the Paris she depicts is still very much of today (this is the first film I have seen that features the Parisian Vélib rental bikes, for example).
Above all, La Reine des Pommes is laugh-out-loud funny. I loved the various situations Adèle finds herself in: struggling with cellphone technology, for example; or the time she weeps because her furtive sexual encounters in the car with the married Jacques bring her to orgasm, something she never achieved with her great love Mathieu; or the elaborate sexual game directed by Paul that ends with all the men in her life and Jacques’s wife and Adèle’s roommate congregating in the same place at the same time.
The one false note (in all senses) of the movie is Donzelli’s decision to break into song at various moments, in the style of Demy and other more recent films like On Connaît la Chanson, 8 Femmes and Les Chansons d’Amour. She has neither the voice nor the song-writing talent (yes, she co-wrote the songs too, with singer Benjamin Biolay, who is rumored to be the special new friend of France’s first lady Carla Bruni) to carry it off. But mercifully this only happens at rare intervals in this gem of a movie.Favorite