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Given that people experiencing a midlife crisis might prefer to gloss over the reality that not everything is fun, games and tight skin anymore, it feels almost appropriate that the bittersweet — emphasis on the bitter — French dramedy 50 Is the New 30 (Marie-Francine) is being sold to domestic audiences as something more uncomplicated and attractive: a straightforward comedie populaire. That said, the real reason behind this marketing bait-and-switch probably has more to do with the fact that director, star and co-writer Valerie Lemercier is most famous locally for her roles in broad, mainstream entertainments, among them Les Visiteurs, Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia and Le petit Nicolas. And that her last outing as helmer, The Ultimate Accessory, which also tried to fuse different genres, didn’t do well with either critics or the general public.
The gamble appears to have paid off this time around, as the modest midlife-crisis rom-com seems to be turning into the sleeper hit of the season, with its fourth weekend’s ticket sales actually up 23 percent. The final tally is likely to be somewhere close to 900,000 admissions in France, where purely mainstream titles are considered a hit if they cross the 1 million mark. Distributors used to marketing French films to older audiences overseas will want to take a look, while remake rights could possibly be of interest to savvy producers looking for female-driven material aimed at an age bracket that’s still woefully underserved.
At the start of act two of 50 Is the New 30, unemployed chemical researcher Marie-Francine (Lemercier), 50, has opened an electronic cigarette boutique at the insistence of her well-meaning but overbearing petit-bourgeois parents (Helene Vincent, Philippe Laudenbach). Marie-Francine has temporarily moved in with them after her husband, the boring and a little sad Emmanuel (Denis Podalydes), left her for a younger woman the same week she was laid off from her job.
This straightforward setup suggests the film could be a conventional drama or perhaps a comedy-drama, and for a good part of its running time, it seems to gently oscillate between the two. But there are quite a few exceptions, like the incongruous moment when Emmanuel shows up in the boutique, badly disguised as an old lady, so he can talk to Marie-Francine, with whom he’s technically still married but who refuses to talk to him since their abrupt split.
“Dragging up” male characters is a staple of French mainstream comedy, but what’s fascinating here is that Lemercier, who co-wrote the film with Sabine Haudepin, doesn’t really play the moment for big laughs. Instead, it offers a glimpse of the desperation of Emmanuel’s character underneath that ridiculous wig. Marie-Francine might be in full midlife crisis, living with her parents and selling cigarettes while she should be doing cancer research, but this moment makes it clear that her straying husband, too, is having a hard time dealing with the situation even if — or perhaps especially because — he’s largely responsible for it.
There are clear possibilities for pure comedy in a 50-year-old’s return to the parental home, of course, but here, too, the laughs are never uproarious and the chuckles are frequently served with a side dish of awkward unease or regret. There is nothing of the farcical one-upmanship of a film like last year’s box-office sensation Back to Mom’s, in which a 40-year-old woman returned to live with her mother, with hilarious results.
Here, Lemercier prefers to concentrate on the credible psychology of her characters first, making it clear that Marie-Francine doesn’t want to be treated like a 14-year-old by her parents, doesn’t want to do a job she has no interest in — she doesn’t even smoke, at least, not initially — and she certainly doesn’t want to end up alone as an old spinster. Nor does she want to stay with a man for the wrong reasons. Lemercier underlines her character’s despondency even more by giving her two teen daughters (who have remained with dad) and two parents, all of whom seem quite independent and rather happy.
The film has no original score to punch up its comedic overtones, either, instead relying on existing music choices that are often tinged with melancholy, from Saint-Saëns’ morbidly named Danse macabre to the songs of fado superstar Amalia Rodrigues.
The Portuguese fado music also foreshadows the arrival of Miguel (Patrick Timsit), a chef of Portuguese extraction who works at the restaurant next door to Marie-Francine’s e-cigarette shop and who starts preparing her little bowls of fresh food every day for lunch when he discovers she doesn’t eat very well.
They both have secrets as well: Miguel still lives with his parents, too, though he’s too embarrassed to admit it to Marie-Francine; and she has a twin sister, Marie-Noelle (also Lemercier), that he at one point mistakes for her because he doesn’t know she exists. Both of these are classical comedy devices that could’ve come from the works of someone like Goldoni. But here, too, Lemercier seems more interested in the psychological effects of, for example, Miguel’s lies about his living conditions than on any potential for hilarious misunderstandings and quid pro quos.
The story’s gradual shift into over-50 romantic-comedy territory is somewhat unexpected but also rather lovely, even if — as in Lemercier’s previous film — the fairytale-like finale, here featuring the two lovers looking out over the snow-covered rooftops of Paris, feels unearned. The audience warms to the characters, all played in a register that’s only slightly more stylized than straight-up realism, and wants them to be happy. But it’s hard to accept such a clear-cut happily-ever-after ending when almost the entire film preceding it seems to suggest that life is much more messy, complex and fascinating.
Production companies: Rectangle Productions, Gaumont, TF1 Films Production, Scope Pictures
Cast: Valerie Lemercier, Patrick Timsit, Helene Vincent, Philippe Laudenbach, Denis Podalydes, Nadege Beausson-Diagne, Marie Petiot, Simon Perlmutter
Director: Valerie Lemercier
Screenplay: Valerie Lemercier, Sabine Haudepin
Producer: Edouard Weil
Director of photography: Laurent Dailland
Production designer: Emmanuelle Duplay
Costume designer: Catherine Leterrier
Editor: Jean-Francois Elie
Casting: Agathe Hassenforder
In French, Portuguese
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