'The Apple of My Eye' ('La Prunelle de mes yeux'): Locarno Review

Festival del film Locarno
A screwball comedy with a light hipster veneer.

Melanie Bernier and Bastien Bouillon play a blind woman and her neighbor who pretends to be blind in this 21st-century screwball comedy from French director Axelle Ropert.

A young and not terribly talented Franco-Greek musician pretends to be blind to spite — and, of course, simultaneously attract the attention of — an actually blind young woman living in the same Parisian apartment building in The Apple of My Eye (La Prunelle de mes yeux). Playing like a hipstered-up French version of a studio romantic comedy from the 1930s, this third feature from screenwriter and occasional director Axelle Ropert is the kind of film in which a set of brothers and a set of sisters, separated by one ceiling but united by an interested in music, are secretly in love with one another but they all have mightily strange — and often chuckle-inducing — ways of showing it.

Though her previous two films as a director, The Wolberg Family and Miss and the Doctors, were more straightforwardly dramatic, Apple doesn’t quite feel like a departure because it so clearly recalls the occasionally wacky work of Ropert’s partner, actor and writer-director Serge Bozon (La France, Tip Top), whose films she co-writes. (As usual, he also has a small role, here playing a rock star who looks like the love-child of George Michael circa Faith and a young Johnny Hallyday.) All three films also deal with family relationships in various configurations. 

Beyond home turf, where it will be released in December, and festivals with a taste for auteur comedy, such as Locarno, this will need exceptional marketing to find more than a niche audience, though the small cult of Bozon-Ropert aficionados will no doubt eat this up.

Theo (Bastien Bouillon) and Leandro (Antonin Fresson) are two French brothers and small-time musicians of Greek extraction. They don’t speak the language of their ancestors but still love and play rebetiko, a type of popular Greek music (perhaps because their great-grandmother was a famous rebetiko singer). The fairer-haired Theo plays the bouzouki, an instrument akin to the mandolin, while the dark-haired and bearded Leandro accompanies him on the tambour. Though they physically look very different, their sartorial choices — hipster-chic jackets and studiedly casual shirts, possibly topped off with a dark-hued bowtie — visually suggest that in matters of taste, at least, they are cut from the same cloth.

Though Leandro’s secretly the more musically gifted one, he’s seemingly happy to lets his louder and bossier sibling take the spotlight. Indeed, Theo’s so brash, he thinks nothing of pretending to be blind to annoy his actually blind upstairs neighbor, Elise (Melanie Bernier), an independent-minded young woman who tunes pianos for a living and who lives with her needier, coke-addicted older sister, Marina (Chloe Astor), in the same building.

Like in Ropert’s previous films, there’s a rapid-fire, tit-for-tat quality to the dialogues that sucks the viewers in while revealing the characters’ agendas. Elise and Theo’s first exchange in the building’s elevator, for example, crackles with furtive fascination and fake outrage in equal measure, suggesting Theo and Elisa have both met their match but neither wants to simply admit they’re in love.

After two dramas with some comedic touches, Ropert, who also wrote the screenplay, has here engineered a classical screwball plot with just a hint of hipster veneer, with the stubborn Theo continuing to pretend to be blind to the point that Elise — not-so-subtly named after Beethoven’s "Für Elise" — starts to believe he cannot actually see anymore and therefore might need her help. Leandro and Marina not only serve as their siblings’ sounding boards and verbal sparring partners — they need to complain about their new obnoxious-yet-fascinating neighbor to someone — but of course develop a parallel-running romantic arc as well.

Around this compact romantic-comedy core, Ropert has arranged a good half-dozen subplots that are often more purely comedic. The large gallery of supporting characters includes not only Bozon’s rocker and a creepy café patron obsessed with bubble wrap (Jean-Charles Clichet) but also an overly dedicated Job Center employee (Thierry Gibault); an addiction expert supposedly trying to help Marina (Camille Cayol) and a shy colleague of Elise’s, Nicolai (Swann Arlaud), who also is blind and who is secretly in love with her.

Though they provide levity (or in the case of Nicolai, additional heart), these secondary storylines start to crowd out the main narrative in the film’s less disciplined second half. And though generally intelligent as well as funny, there are a few moments in which the attempts at comedy rely just on Elise’s handicap, like when she shows up in places in hideous dresses or treats Theo, who has come to apologize, badly because she assumes he’s that pesky Jehovah’s Witness again. Clearly, the Elise that Bernier plays so well here is not that kind of impulsive young woman, especially because she’s been blind all her life and would know by now what risks she runs by not paying attention to details.

Part of the film’s setup is clearly very modern, with its portrayal of two unemployed Greeks in crisis and musicians (or, more generally, artists) struggling to make a living even in France. But because of the filmmaker's desire to follow an eight-decade-old template quite closely, every character also feels the need to apologize for each of their missteps. While morally commendable, this practice feels decidedly outdated in this terrorism- and polarizing-politics-dominated world in which unapologetic lying has become the new normal.

All the more reason, then, to go and see a light-hearted and romantic divertissement such as this one.

Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Melanie Bernier, Bastien Bouillon, Antonin Fresson, Chloe Astor, Swann Arlaud, Laurent Moth, Thierry Gibault, Camille Cayol, Serge Bozon, Jean-Charles Clichet, Gregoire Montana
Writer-director: Axelle Ropert
Producers: David Thion, Philippe Martin
Director of photography: Sebastien Buchmann
Production designer: Sophie Reynaud-Malouf
Costume designer: Delphine Capossela
Editor: Francois Quiquere
Music: Benjamin Esdraffo
Casting: Tatiana Vialle
Sales: Les Films du Losange

Not rated, 87 minutes

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