France / Belgium, 2010
Review by Anna Bak-Kvapil
Posted on 24 March 2011
Source 35mm print
Boasting a robust slate of films already approved by Sundance, Cannes, Rotterdam and Toronto, the 2011 New Directors/New Films festival sets expectations high for its 40th anniversary. Some choices, like director Dennis Villeneuve’s tricky, politically opaque Incendies (Canada’s entry for the 2011 Academy Awards) and Daniel and Diego Vega’s Peruvian character study Octubre (Cannes 2010 Un Certain Regard winner), live up to their reputations. Others, like Anne Sewitsky’s Norwegian comedy of re-marriage, Happy Happy (Sundance 2011 Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema winner) and opening night film Margin Call, a hokey drama about the 2008 market crash, starring heavyweights Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, fall disappointingly flat. There isn’t much in the way of levity or eye candy to be found, favored themes being the melancholy dreariness of daily life and the horrors of political unrest. (With so many selections sharing the same brownish gray color palette, I began to wonder if the projector simply hadn’t been cleaned in a while.) The most high profile films have imminent theatrical release dates, but some of the best entries in the festival are among the least heralded, including the Japanese comedy Hospitalité, and the French coming of age tale Belle Epine. Accordingly, the focus of reviews here will be on the good – and the not so good – in New Directors/New Films selections currently lacking U.S. distribution.
Even in the handful of comedies Isabelle Huppert has appeared in (I Heart Huckabees, 8 Women), she’s remained an icy and chic presence placed in a comedic situation. In Copacabana, she pokes fun at this persona, and it’s a bit of a “Garbo Laughs” moment, although a more apt slogan might be “Huppert Smokes a Joint and Juggles.” She plays Babou, an aging free spirit with the fashion sense of a little girl playing dress up in her mother’s clothes, favoring purple tights and mauve fingerless gloves, a flyaway bouffant, and blue eye shadow. Leering and lazing around in her trashy outfits, she’s shockingly different from the clean scrubbed, alluringly expressionless persona that has long defined Huppert.
Introduced wandering around a department store, mooching free makeovers from beauty counters, Babou is purposefully adrift in the world, following her own whims without paying much attention to the effect her behavior has on her serious and sad 22-year-old daughter, Esméralda. Played by Huppert’s own daughter, Lolita Chammah, her face reflects a fuller, softer version of Huppert’s lapidary features. But she has an enervating lack of rapport with her mother, the fault of a script that forces her to be a blank foil to Babou’s frivolity.
When Esméralda tells her mother she’s getting married, Babou responds sadly, “I tried to open you up to the world.” Despite her disapproval of the marriage, Babou is determined to prove to her daughter that she’s respectable enough to be invited to her wedding. Soon she lucks into a position selling timeshare apartments in Oostende, Belgium, a charmless seaside town populated by surly locals, weekending Brits, and developers looking to create the next Ibiza. The optimistic developers are hampered by the fact that, as one time share saleswoman points out, “it’s only sunny two weeks a year.” The look of the film reflects this grayness, every surface of the apartment complex and its surroundings a bleak steel gray or stale beige. Babou, in her tropically hued ensembles, blazes against the bland backdrop.
In a 2009 interview for The London Telegraph, when asked if she would ever do a comedy, Huppert said:
Why not? But then it would be a bit like the fable of the scorpion who asks the crocodile to take him across the river on his back and promises not to sting him. Half way across, he can’t help himself, because it’s in his nature, so half-way through my romantic comedy I probably wouldn’t be able to stop myself from doing something a little bit bleak—or dark.
This is exactly the expectation Huppert’s presence in Copacabana sets up, as Babou seems poised to reveal the awful depths of her flighty character through some Piano Teacher-esque act. Instead, once the more cartoonish elements of her personality are established, she becomes gradually subtler and gentler. Instead of doing something dark, she turns unfailingly generous, inviting some dreadlocked drifters to stay in one of the empty time share apartments, and playing Cyrano de Bergerac by feeding her daughter’s fiancée lines to say when the couple gets into an argument.
Director Marc Fitoussi captures the paranoia and discomfort inherent to starting a new job in a business organization, but doesn’t have much sense of pacing or narrative development, failing to imbue the relationship between mother and daughter with emotional resonance. The title of the film, meant to recall Babou’s dream of visiting Brazil, is only referenced by some Latin music on the soundtrack, and a group of Brazilian dancers who pop up when a snazzy resolution is needed. Fitoussi is lucky to have enlisted Huppert, who even without her sting makes dull material absorbing, and he wisely allows her to explore a lighter persona without getting in her way. If only he hadn’t subjected her, in the tone deaf final scene, to the indignity of having to shimmy around in a spangled Carmen Miranda headdress.