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Chronicling four decades in the life of a quintessentially French couple, Mr. & Mrs. Adelman reveals the highs and lows, passions and betrayals, pontifications and intellectual masturbation of a writer and his wife from the 1970s to the present day.
It’s an ambitious first feature for comic Nicolas Bedos and real-life partner Doria Tillier, who co-wrote and co-star in the film, but the result often feels closer to cinematic pastiche than to an actual movie. With references galore ranging from Woody Allen to Ingmar Bergman to Paul Thomas Anderson, and a pair of lead characters who can be more grating than endearing, this sprawling misfire is mildly salvaged by a few stabs at humor and Tillier’s lively performance. Local fans of Bedos will want to watch the Adelmans in action, while the subject matter and setting could also land it in a few markets overseas.
Like a bottle of supermarket red wine masquerading as a vintage Chateau Margaux, the film purports to be a classy French dramedy but winds up leaving a bad taste in your mouth. It’s filled with energy and a certain amount of wit, but its premise is so overstretched, its characters so cliched and its late third-act reversal so ridiculous, that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. Bedos is known as a public prankster and cultural gadfly, so maybe he and Tillier are simply trying to have some fun. Yet there are moments when they seem to be awfully sincere in their efforts, which makes their film all the more problematic.
Kicking off in 1971, Mr. & Mrs. Adelman tells the story of budding author Victor (Bedos), who, when he’s not whining to his psychiatrist (Denis Podalydes) about his penis size (as all great writers are known to do), is trying very hard to be the next Albert Camus. He seems to be going nowhere fast before he crosses paths with Sarah (Tillier), a brilliant Ph.D. student who falls head-over-heels for him and, after a complicated courtship, finally seals the deal.
While their relationship starts off as an awkwardly carnal affair, it soon becomes clear that their true calling revolves around Victor’s writing, which Sarah assists in more ways than one — especially after she allows him to use her Jewish last name to sign his first novel, about a family of Holocaust survivors. Quickly deemed the French Philip Roth and handed the prestigious Prix Goncourt, Victor becomes a literary superstar, while Sarah lingers sadly in the shadows. They go through the usual marital episodes of cruelty, infidelity and reconciliation, as Bedos and Tillier are aged with what looks like an entire Sephora store’s worth of makeup.
There are a few memorable scenes, especially a hilarious Christmas dinner with Victor’s father (the great Pierre Arditi) that turns disastrous, and some of the dialogue is fast and clever in a screwball comedy kind of way. Yet there’s a lot here that feels vaguely unoriginal, such as a ‘70s-set sequence where the camera swoops into a disco-themed nightclub à la Boogie Nights, the typical ‘80s moment where Sarah has bad hair and becomes a cokehead (while a Lou Reed poster lingers in the background), the Yiddish-yelling caricatures that are Sarah’s parents, or Victor’s constant moaning and groaning about his rollercoaster of an intellectual career.
Woody Allen of course comes to mind (at one point the couple is seen walking into one of his movies), but his characters, especially in the early films, are lovable losers who can dish out a good self-deprecating one-liner when you need it. Bedos‘ Victor, on the other hand, comes across as a typical Parisian d-bag who’s blinded by his own ego, and who may also be one of the worst screen fathers since Robert Duvall in The Great Santini. (The couple’s young son seems to be severely on the spectrum and the best Victor can do is call him an “idiot” over and over again. Eventually the son dies, and Victor and Sarah sigh in relief that he’s finally gone. Yes, this really happens.)
Tillier, who started off as a weather girl on Canal Plus, brings more depth to the table as a woman hiding behind her man and suffering for it, though the way she keeps coming back to Victor is hard to believe. Is he really that appealing despite decades of reprehensible behavior and utter selfishness, or is there something hidden behind Sarah’s ongoing attraction that we simply cannot see?
Like in The Usual Suspects, the last act involves a major twist that tries to justify a lot of what happened while pulling the rug out from under the audience. Such a surprise is meant to show how an entire public life could really just be something of a sham, yet it ultimately makes Mr. & Mrs. Adelman feel like a sham of a movie. In the end, it’s perhaps the best way for a provocateur like Bedos to conclude his grandiose screen romance, leaving the last joke on us.
Production companies: Les Films du Kiosque, France 2 Cinema, Orange Studio, Le Pacte, Chaocorp Cinema, Umedia
Cast: Doria Tillier, Nicolas Bedos, Denis Podalydes, Antoine Gouy, Christiane Millet, Pierre Arditi, Zabou Breitman, Julien Boisselier
Director: Nicolas Bedos
Screenwriters: Nicolas Bedos, Doria Tillier
Producers: Francois Kraus, Denis Pineau-Valencienne
Director of photography: Nicolas Bolduc
Production designer: Stephanie Rozenbaum
Costume designer: Karen Muller Serreau
Editor: Anny Danche
Composers: Philippe Kelly, Nicolas Bedos
Casting director: Emmanuelle Prevost
Sales: Le Pacte
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