Friday, 9 October 2015

At the LFF: "21 Nights with Pattie/Vingt et Une Nuits avec Pattie"

For all the (already moot) debate as to whether Lena Dunham/Amy Schumer/Miranda Hart/your mum can truly be said to be funny, there's a compelling argument that the funniest woman in the world right now is, in fact, lying low in French movies: this would be Karin Viard, whose high-strung energy is such you can practically feel the screen vibrating whenever she's on a roll. Further evidence of her claim comes early on in the Larrieu brothers' 21 Nights with Pattie, as her eponymous heroine, a housekeeper at an idyllic retreat in the Languedoc, regales a woman she's barely known for five minutes with the extravagant - nay, pornographic - sexual adventures she's recently enjoyed with a local huntsman. You can't stop her: away she goes, a hundred salty words per minute, sweeping her increasingly sullied audience along with her, until the frothing subsides, and it's all you can do not to stand up, applaud, and shout a hearty "encore" - which is exactly what her savvy directors proceed to do.

It has an oddball framing - deploying the Academy ratio for bonus eccentricity - but the rest of the film plays almost, but not quite like one of those bucolic comedies in which an uptight city sort has their worldview altered by an extended stay in the countryside. Caroline (Isabelle Carré), Pattie's blushing sounding board in that initial onslaught, has arrived in this neck of the woods in order to pick up the body of her recently deceased lawyer mother and return it to the city for burial. It's meant to be a quick turnaround; inevitably, that doesn't come to pass, delays being incurred when the body goes AWOL on the evening Caroline first arrives. You might expect matters to stabilise upon the arrival of veteran André Dussollier as a sober-suited writer who claims to have known the deceased, one way or another - other than Caroline, he's the only houseguest who appears in any way perturbed by the corpse's disappearance - but then you're forced to remember Dussollier was the star of Alain Resnais' Wild Grass, one of 21st century cinema's loopier flourishes.

We should also bear in mind that the toothily suggestible Carré, a memorable bunnyboiler in 2007's Anna M., seems exactly the type who might succumb to the prevailing summer madness. It's an embedded gag that Caroline should spend the first hour of the film in a state of mute astonishment, whether at the uncorked Pattie's outpourings, the community's generally blase response to her mother's disappearance, or the local police chief's sober parsing of the differences between necrophiles and necrophages. (Probably best not to Google that.) When the camera eventually alights on Caroline talking to herself, it seems somehow both an inevitability and a cue for the film to enter into its final, highest plain of let-it-all-hang-out insanity. For much of its running time, 21 Nights succeeds in being an unlikely combination of entirely blithe and weirdly subversive: you can't help but wonder which brother is responsible for which aspect.

It is true that - pushing on for two hours - the film overstays its welcome. It loses a good deal of its snap in pushing Viard to the margins to take up the hunt for the missing body, although it's a reliably funny joke - and perhaps a wry comment on the pace of country life - that no-one bothers to follow up on the disappearance for the longest while. (Certainly not the copper, who emerges from a swim in the nearby lake to inform Caroline he'll get round to having it drained for traces of the corpse.) During the longer stretches of dinner-table waffle, you can feel the sly black comic relish cooling on the performers' lips; it comes to feel as though inappropriate monologues are all the Larrieus really have to offer. Still, on the whole, 21 Nights with Pattie qualifies as a bracing project: to pin down the kind of broadly conservative tourist-trap, summer-getaway movie the French cinema has long traded in, and inject every last one of its nooks and crannies with a curious cocktail of sex and death.

21 Nights with Pattie screens at the NFT this Monday at 2.30pm.  

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