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Leave it to the French to concoct a necrophilia-themed sex comedy that’s enjoyable, light of touch and sensual in a summery sort of way instead of, well, creepy. The latest film from the Larrieu brothers, 21 Nights with Pattie (Vingt et une nuits avec Pattie) stars Isabelle Carre as a jovial but, deep down, also somewhat frigid woman who falls in with the colorful entourage of her recently deceased mother. The motley crew she encounters at her mother’s country home includes Karin Viard as the sex-obsessed character of the title; Holy Motors’ Denis Lavant as her male equivalent; Andre Dussolier as a certain famous, award-winning French writer who knew her mother; and a coterie of men and boys who all seem much more at ease with their bodies and sex drive than Carre’s Caroline. A Best Screenplay winner at the recent San Sebastian film festival, this unusual and frothy comedy-drama should be an attractive — if perhaps not that easily marketable — proposition for arthouse distributors used to handling French fare.
When Caroline (Carre) finally arrives at the gigantic home of her estranged mother in the rural Languedoc region to sort out the latter’s funeral details, she finds two men naked in the outdoor pool. A simple, wordless gesture shows how uncomfortable she is with the whole situation: Before speaking to these strangers, Caroline lowers her sunglasses from her head onto her nose, so there’s literally a barrier between her eyes and all that floppy, humid male nakedness. Everyday gestures such as these show how observant Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu (To Paint or Make Love, Love Is the Perfect Crime) are and how much their mise-en-scene depends on recognizable human behavior that can be slyly visual rather than explicitly verbal.
But not to worry, this isn’t the kind of French film where no one talks. Quite the contrary. Mom’s earthy cleaning woman, Pattie (Viard), is a motor-mouthed and libidinous over-sharer who immediately tries to build a form of intimacy with the daughter of her former employer by talking about her sexual exploits, including those with the barely comprehensible but oh-so-good-in-the-sack village weirdo (Lavant). If shocking for a relatively reserved person, it is comprehensible behavior from Pattie, given the fact that Caroline’s mother, Isabelle or Zsa Zsa (Mathilde Monnier), was also something of a libertine — though her adult daughter turns out to be nothing like her at all. However, the open and frank approach to sexuality does seem to run in Pattie’s family: Her handsome 18-year-old, Kamil (Jules Ritmanic), can’t take his eyes of off Caroline and has problems keeping his shirt on around her.
Though hormones flare up frequently and bare flesh is on the menu several times, the film never becomes an outright sex farce a la some of Bertrand Blier’s earlier works. Instead, the Larrieus, who also wrote the screenplay, want to explore both sex and death, and to structure their ideas, they’ve chosen a straightforward but very effective narrative throughline involving the disappearance of Zsa Zsa’s body, the night before the funeral. This causes a local police detective (Laurent Poitrenaux) to come up with theories involving either a former lover who couldn’t part with the deceased or a secret admirer who has finally decided that this is their chance to have their way with Caroline’s mother.
Though potentially hair-raising and icky, the Larrieus handle this material with restraint and even flair, frequently finding opportunities for humor and sex — or mostly, as befits a French film, talking about sex rather than actually having it. Making things even more complex is the introduction of an enigmatic older gentleman, Jean (Dussolier). A novelist by trade who has come down to the village for Zsa Zsa’s funeral, Jean apparently had a pretty serious fling with the now-dead woman years ago. But is he a suspect or an old friend?
Though Pattie is not a whodunit in the sense that the resolution is the film’s money shot, the mystery at the story’s center does invite viewers to consider each character’s behavior more carefully, which in turn draws the audience deeper into this unusual character study and manages to even make the more fanciful twists in the film’s latter reels fly. That said, the film does go a little bit Return of the King in terms of how many endings it seems to have.
Though (or perhaps because) the leads have played similar characters before, their acting is effective and precise. Carre finds the right balance between emotional and physical reticence and her character’s otherwise radiant disposition, while Viard and Ritmanic, as her sensual son, simply ooze sex pheromones. The supporting cast, lead by Lavant and the equally welcome character actor Philippe Rebbot, is filled with fascinating faces.
Beautiful locations and ditto camerawork are the standouts of the all-round solid craft contributions.
Opens in France: Nov. 25 (in San Sebastian, London film festivals)
Production companies: Arena Films, Pyramide Productions
Cast: Isabelle Carre, Karin Viard, Denis Lavant, Andre Dussolier, Philippe Rebbot, Jules Ritmanic, Laurent Poitrenaux, Mathilde Monnier, Sergi Lopez
Writer-Directors: Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu
Producers: Francis Boespflug, Bruno Pesery
Director of photography: Yannick Ressigeac
Production designer: Stephane Levy
Costume designer: Maira Ramedhan-Levi
Editor: Annette Dutetre
Sales: Pathe International
No rating, 115 minutes
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