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The one thing that unites all the films from oddball Francophone directors Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern (Saint-Amour, Near Death Experience) is that a mere plot setup can never prepare the viewer for what’s coming — even viewers who are familiar with all their eccentric, touching and frequently hilarious previous films.
Case in point: Their latest concoction is called I Feel Good and is ostensibly about a middle-aged woman with stringy hair and a sizable derriere who runs an idealistic version of a recycling center. One day in her rural nook of southern France, she’s visited by her ne’er-do-well but almost-handsome younger brother, who just wants to get rich and is working on finding that one idea that will finally help him realize that goal. It’s safe to assume that not a single person on this planet would expect this setup to lead to a scene in which an airplane cabin, which actually finds itself inside a truck on the road to Bulgaria, is filled to the brim with down-and-out patients for low-cost plastic-surgery interventions in Eastern Europe.
Not quite an acquired taste but certainly not a mainstream comedy, either, Delepine and Kervern’s newest baby could find a slightly larger-than-usual audience because the younger brother is played by Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin. His casting against type, as an opportunistic has-been who really never was to begin with, is an absolute delight and a strong selling point, though Belgian acting treasure Yolande Moreau, as his sister, is equally terrific. I Feel Good opened Sept. 26 in France.
The no-nonsense but also very fair and kind Monique (Moreau) runs an “Emmaus” community near Pau, close to the border with Spain, which offers marginalized people, such as those that were just released from prison or are homeless, employment in the community’s enormous recycling center. The idea is that the employees there are given some time to get back on their feet in society again. Coincidentally, this is something Monique’s 40-year-old sibling, Jacques (Dujardin), would also need, though he’s much too proud to admit it. Instead, the lowlife lives his life like he already had the brilliant idea that made him rich beyond belief. “I want a box at Roland Garros!” he says as if he’s owed such a privilege, which contrasts strongly with the fact he’s essentially crashing on the couch of his sibling’s trailer and she has to force him to at least join the other employees for some work during the day since he doesn’t otherwise have a job.
His brilliant idea, as suggested above, is to start selling low-cost plastic surgery, and who better as his first clients than the people who work at his sister’s center? She’s not entirely sold on the idea, not least because she knows her brother and also because she must be wondering why the marginalized and near-penniless, of all people, would be his most logical target market for this unnecessary luxury product. But somewhat oddly, she still goes along with the idea after having stated her objections.
Writers and directors Delepine and Kervern, of course, demand a fair amount of suspension of disbelief. But their films aren’t documentaries so much as somewhat bonkers socio-political commentaries on the state of France and Western Europe, and here the crux of the story is the clash between the hedonistic, money-obsessed vision of Jacques and the more utopian, neo-communist ideals of his big sister. (Their late parents were avid communists and they make an unexpected cameo appearance in Monique’s car.) In this context, their travels to Bulgaria via Romania, both behind the former Iron Curtain, start to make more sense, as does the attention to the obsession with getting a perfect face or body, even if the risks might be higher because of the lower costs.
That said, these thematic undercurrents are just that. They always stay just under the surface, with the crazy antics of the narrative and the characters always dominant. This ensures both a logical — within the context of what’s happening — story throughline and moments that can be moving, funny or both, such as the scene in which center employee Manu (Jo Dahan) recounts all the bad luck he’s had at all his previous jobs in industries that were wiped out by the advent of new technologies. (Some of these might be hard to translate for non-Francophone audiences.)
Dujardin started in sketch-type comedy before segueing to more mainstream merriment such as the clueless-surfer wackiness of the Brice de Nice films, the suave OSS 117 spy parodies and his wordless artistry in The Artist. Here, he’s clearly in his element playing someone who is fully — if foolishly — committed to the cause of becoming rich for riches’ sake and who’s not afraid to look ridiculous doing it, even if it is clear that underneath it all, Jacques is more of an opportunist than a ruthless capitalist. Through hair, makeup and a few extra pounds, Dujardin has shed his movie-star looks, making Jacques someone who could see his own potential to look like a movie star, rather than actually looking like one. Moreau, in her third film for the directors — her first appearance was in Louise-Michel, perhaps still their best film to date — plays a warm-hearted idealist of which the real world would need more; she gets things done while always making sure she’s looking out for those around her. Her Monique has a slightly bipolar side in that she seems both jealous of and annoyed by her brother’s lifestyle and philosophy, an illogical duality that makes her only more human.
As is their wont, the directors prefer sequence shots over shot/reverse shots, which gives the actors more space to breathe within each scene and to play off of each other, which they frequently do gloriously. The color grading has given the film a slightly pastel-like wash out, as if it had been made in another time.
Production companies: JD Prod, No Money Productions
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Yolande Moreau, Jo Dahan, Lou Castel, Jean-Benoit Uguex, Jean-Francois Landon, Jana Bittnerova, Elsa Foucaud, Marius Bertram
Writer-directors: Benoit Delepine, Gustave Kervern
Producers: Marc Dujardin, Benoit Delepine, Gustave Kervern
Director of photography: Hugues Poulain
Production designer: Madphil
Costume designer: Agnes Noden
Editor: Stephane Elmadjian
Venue: Utopia Luxembourg
Sales: Wild Bunc
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