The curiously named Cherchez Hortense (Looking for Hortense), co-written (with Agathe de Sacy) and directed by Pascal Bonitzer, is breezy, humanistic, handsomely lensed, but ultimately an unspectacular French dramedy. With sprinkles of a mid-life existential crisis come redemption tale, a strained father-son relationship, the unraveling of a tired marriage and a semblance of a social commentary, Bonitzer incorporates too many strands in his narrative. It is neither dramatic nor funny enough to leave a lasting impression.
We are initially led to believe that the story will follow Kristen Scott-Thomas’ theatre-director Iva, but following the opening scene of her stressing about a scene in her new play, and acknowledging her handsome cast member’s attraction to her, the story then shifts to her lethargic husband Damien (Jean Pierre Bacri), whom we follow for the remainder of the film. He is a lecturer in Chinese customs at a business school, but is predominantly housebound taking care of the couple’s son Noe (Marin Orcand Tourres), with Iva working late, and suspiciously staying out later.
Damien’s life experiences turmoil when Iva requests he meet with his estranged father (Claude Rich), a judge at the Council of State, and begrudgingly asks him to use his weight to help a foreigner who could soon face expulsion from the country. When he finally manages to arrange a meeting va and the young woman preemptively celebrate, which forces Damien to try and put his his life right. Running into a sunny local waitress, Aurore (Isabelle Carre), who expresses interest in his lectures and offers reprieve from his stresses.
Damien is a man downtrodden on life. He has a weary look about him and is always sporting scruffy day-old beard growth. As Aurore tells him several times, he looks ruffled, and having accompanied him through this series of plights, we understand why. He is ashamed by his inability to deliver on a promise, and grows even more so by leading on those who asked the favor of him. The film’s predictable twist results in his hand in this stranger’s life becoming more personal. I think at least 15 minutes could have been shaved off this film, because the strongest arc – Damien’s journey to find the courage to deal with his mounting obligations, and regain his self-esteem and sense of pride – is compelling on it’s own. Some of his obstacles and side plots feel contrived and cloudy the otherwise smart script.
The photography and the intermittent classy piano score are also worthy of commendation, along with the performances from Bacri, Scott-Thomas and Carre (adorable), which suggests that this likely festival hit will charm it’s audiences.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22