Long-term observers of French cinema will already know what an unconventional presence the actress Jeanne Balibar can be: Jacques Rivette's 2001 film Va Savoir, arguably her finest two-and-a-half hours, might have seemed a wearying, academic slog without her. Wonders in the Suburbs, her third credit as a director, is very what we might call Balibarian: it's a film operating at its own rhythm some distance from reality, with long stretches that would appear completely away with the fairies. To a certain degree, it takes its methodology from the US cable hit Portlandia, taking a single location (here, the suddenly prominent Parisian suburb of Montfermeil) as a backdrop for a series of varyingly zany sketches. This week's releases include the sobering vision of Ladj Ly's Les Misérables, on what it is to be a young Black resident of this same part of the world. Balibar's Montfermeil, on the other hand, is seen to celebrate Harem Pants Day and Brioche Day, and its residents are the beneficiaries of a municipally sanctioned afternoon nap. (Like Portlandia, which deployed a perma-grinning Kyle MacLachlan as a political Pollyanna, Wonders in the Suburbs offers the kind of celebrity mayor you believe might well set these policies in place: Emmanuelle Béart, who is to the French cinema of the 21st century what Diana Dors was to the British film and television industry of the 1980s, a holdover from a more decadent era, someone whose cartoon voluptuousness can now be framed as in itself something of a joke.) Even that, however, doesn't bring us close enough to the essential barminess of Balibar's project: I'm not finally sure Wonders in the Suburbs ever gets close to being properly, laugh-out-loud funny, as Portlandia more often than not was.
What makes this such a confounding watch is that just when you think you know what it's going to be, it decides to be something else instead: its skittishness is ultra-Balibarian. The opening stretch goes out of its way to establish Montfermeil's all-star administrators (who include Mathieu Amalric and the comedian Ramzy) as supreme kooks and loons, but then these same kooks and loons are sent out to do exactly that social work (language teaching, housing provision) our actual administrators are most often occupied with, often in the presence of real-life Montfermeil locals. You wonder whether the production was conceived as a community enterprise, put on with assistance from the local authorities Balibar comes in part to send up - but even this rationale doesn't account for such oddball skits as the one in which two middle-aged men guide a younger couple through their lovemaking. There's no real punchline, it being just one quirky episode among many, and indeed Wonders in the Suburbs in its entirety comes to peter out by having the cast doing a "funny" dance. (Yes, it's one of those. Sorry, everyone.) Along with the eccentricity, then, there's a leaden dose of complacency: the editorial line is that, for all their quirks, those in charge of Montfermeil are basically good eggs trying to do the right things, and that this suburb would be as fine a place as any to make a life for yourself and your children. It's a cuckoo liberal fantasy version of the Parisian suburbs - one that asserts that, at worst, our leaders are well-meaning fools - and while it coaxed the occasional puzzled smile from this viewer, it's probably for the best that it opened before Les Misérables.
Wonders in the Suburbs is now streaming via MUBI UK.