Identity cards play a major role in Très Bien, Merci, a film with a serious identity crisis of its own. One minute it seems to be turning into a French version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the next minute it wants to be Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. Then it goes off on another track altogether.
Alex (Gilbert Melki, who also stars in the recently released Anna M) is an accountant. He couldn’t be a more ordinary guy, except that he has a stubborn streak and a tendency to defy authority (not a quality usually identified with accountants). This is established when he refuses to give his ID card to Métro police agents who are fining him for smoking (yes, it is banned in the Paris Métro) until they threaten to call the police. Then another incident occurs on the street, where he comes across three police officers conducting an identity check on a young couple. Alex stands by and watches the scene, refusing to leave even after repeated warnings from the cops. Finally, they arrest him, take him to the station and throw him into a cell overnight. He is released in the morning, but refuses to leave without seeing a police commissioner for an explanation. Once again, he annoys the cops with his persistence, so they lock him up again, this time in a psychiatric facility. When his taxi-driving wife, Béatrice (Sandrine Kiberlain), comes to see him, she signs administrative papers without reading them, inadvertently committing him to the psychiatric hospital.
While all this is happening, you want to scream at these bumbling characters, “Get a lawyer, for Christ’s sake,” but for some reason this never seems to occur to them.
Alex takes his tranquilizers willingly (“You need them here,” he says) and seems to be falling into a “Cuckoo’s Nest” downward spiral, surrounded by zombie-like fellow patients. But suddenly he gets released. Now the problem is unemployment – he has lost his job as a result of all these misadventures and can’t get another because of his tarnished record. Again he goes into a downward spiral, lying to his wife, drinking and attempting suicide (by trying to jump through a closed window, proof that he is a mental case, says a psychiatrist in one of the film’s few humorous moments).
Throughout all this, the audience has to spend a lot of time watching Béatrice driving her taxi around Paris. Why? Hard to say, since these scenes add nothing to the plot except to show that she can sometimes be a real bitch to her clients.
Director Emmanuelle Cuau wrote the meandering screenplay herself. Like so many French films these days, it desperately needs tightening. Where are the suspense and horror that such situations should generate? Missing. And the facile ending seems tacked on, as if Cuau didn’t quite know how to get these not-particularly-sympathetic characters out of their bind.
Inexplicably, the French critics had mostly high praise for this movie. Because of its anti-authoritarian message, especially at a moment when hard-liner Nicolas Sarkozy looks set to be elected president? Because of its exploration of social issues? Or just because they feel they must support French films, even when they are mediocre?
Eva Bechmann writes: “It’s true that is a gloomy film, but if we don’t watch out, we will go down an insidiously slippery slope and accept the deterioration of everyday life (it’s already happened) and the absence of any “social bond.” It’s true that the woman in the taxi who’s always afraid and who’s going to see her shrink is kind of exasperating, and the taxi driver’s reaction is rather violent, but she’d been really patient with her. And it is possible that the guy could get locked up overnight in a police station without being able to call a lawyer, since the police are not required to allow him a call.
“This is an irritating film (maybe a little slow) and you come out of it empty-handed. But I don’t agree with your reading: it’s not so much a question of social issues as a situation that’s harder and harder to grasp. The moral at the end is a bit facile but so true!”