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CANNES – Gales of laughter greeted this slight but good-natured comedy of errors when it premiered to a largely local audience as part of the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. The latest collaboration between the fraternal actor-writer-director duo Denis and Bruno Podalydès is a fairly conventional farce about love, death and family ties. It is guaranteed a strong domestic following when it opens across France next month, but such films are traditionally unlikely to travel beyond Francophone markets. This is a pity, as the Podalydès brothers have an effortless comic confidence which translates well, with a pleasingly rare lack of specific local baggage.
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Denys Podalydès stars as Armand, a middle-aged suburban pharmacist and amateur magician living in Chatou, a nondescript rural region of northwest France. Armand is separated from his emotionally needy wife Helen (Isabelle Candelier), but still living and working with her while he openly conducts a new romance with divorced dental nurse Alix (Valérie Lemercier). Both women tolerate this well-meaning but messy compromise with brittle grace. However, the sudden death of his long-forgotten grandmother Berthe obliges Armand to research her thwarted love life, forcing him to make some grown-up decisions about his own non-committal limbo state.
A suburban ménage a trois, a nagging wife and a sprinkle of folksy whimsy – so far, so typically French. And yet Adieu Berthe is hugely appealing to non-local audiences too, partly thanks to its zippy performances and witty script. There are some inspired comic set-pieces, notably an upscale funeral parlour which presents its designer wares like an achingly pretentious boutique hotel, complete with a pompous guru-like boss played by regular Podalydès collaborator Michel Vuillermoz. The film-makers also make clever use of text messages, displaying them on colourful full-screen backgrounds like Godard-ian intertitles.
French comedies rarely export well, and it is true that Adieu Berthe lacks the highly marketable killer apps that helped catapult Amélie or The Artist to global success. But the Podalydès brothers are clearly masters of the light-touch farce, and this agreeably bittersweet rom-com will reward curious foreign viewers who seek it out. With its universal theme and life-affirming message, it has some of the easy, breezy, warm-hearted charm of golden-era Woody Allen.
Venue: Cannes Directors’ Fortnight screening, May 20
Director: Bruno Podalydès
Writers: Bruno Podalydès, Denis Podalydès
Cast: Denis Podalydès, Valérie Lemercier , Isabelle Candelier, Michel Vuillermoz
Production company: Why Not Productions
Cinematography: Peter Cottereau
Sales agent: Wild Bunch
Rating TBC, 100 minutes
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