- Moment in the sun: Jean-Pierre Bacri and Pascale Arbillot.
People get all worked up when an American filmmaker turns out a witty little contemporary drama like The Kids Are All Right. It's such an anomaly in our impoverished cinemascape, where all the subtlety and intelligence seem to be herded into period flicks.
But if we cast our nets a little wider, such films look less rare. The French, for instance, seem to turn them out as readily as they breathe. That's a relative perception, of course. Still, there aren't many stateside analogues for an artist like Agnes Jaoui. Her films are more thematically complex, twice as sophisticated stylistically, and just as funny and well-acted as most higher-brow multiplex offerings.
Jaoui's latest, Let It Rain, is an understated comedy mostly about how women get along in society. It centers on sisters Agathe and Florence, who after their mother dies decide they can't retain the family's longtime housekeeper. Meanwhile, they contend with fissures in their personal lives, workaholic Agathe with her fiancé and romantically dissatisfied Florence with her needy husband.
Jaoui (who plays Agathe) introduces us to the sisters over the shoulders, as it were, of two would-be documentary filmmakers: Michel (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a sketchy, middle-aged journalist who's recruited Karim (Jamel Debbouze), a somewhat younger hotel clerk, to contribute to a series profiling "successful women." Karim's mother, it happens, is the sisters' housekeeper, and the documentarians' first target -- er, subject -- is Agathe, a well-known writer who's running for political office.
A film whose explicit themes include feminism risks seeming dated on contact. But as Jaoui (who co-scripted with Bacri, her spouse) makes clear, this "ism" is plainly still settling in. The idea of independent, assertive women like Agathe remains indigestible to men like Karim (who's old-fashioned) and Michel (who's just getting old).
The comedy is character-driven, tilling terrain like Michel and Karim's professional incompetence (they're always keeping the busy Agathe waiting) and Agathe's type-A drive: "I think I rest more when I'm working," she notes. And the film treats subjects like social class lightly but respectfully.
Some critics have, in fact, identified an American counterpart for Jaoui: Woody Allen, in his latter-day ensemble comedies seasoned with social critique. Her casually witty visual style and grown-up musical tastes (here, Schubert and Nina Simone to Allen's traddy jazz) also brook comparison.
Ultimately, though, Jaoui has little to say about feminism, for instance, that we haven't heard already. Or about her characters, for that matter, all of whom she treats very kindly, but most of whom need to just chill out (like Agathe) or open up (Michel). Jaoui's first film as director, 2000's The Taste of Others, remains her best. Let It Rain, her third, is an eminently agreeable 98 minutes, but by now we'd hope for a little more. In French, with subtitles./p>
Fri., Aug. 20. Harris