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Apparently, racism is the new, um, black in the comedies populaires from France — and With Open Arms (A bras ouverts) is only the latest film in an increasingly long line of works about a culture clash between white Frenchies and the other-looking people living in their midst that’s supposedly funny on the surface and deeply problematic everywhere else. In this new film from Philippe de Chauveron, whose Serial (Bad) Weddings was one of the biggest local hits of the last few years, a French celebrity intellectual promoting a new book about openness in society is forced to live up to his own ideals and allow a rodent-eating Romani family to set up their dingy trailer in his perfectly manicured garden. No points for guessing this won’t go well or that everything will nonetheless end with a big, fat gypsy wedding.
Thankfully, the French seem to have become somewhat tired of this kind of material themselves, with the film currently at under 700,000 admissions after two weeks (for comparison: Weddings had sold 3.5 million tickets after a fortnight in theaters). Still, in a moment when France is gearing up for elections in which immigration and integration play a large role, this kind of film is simply irresponsible.
De Chauveron’s Weddings looked at a Catholic, right-wing bourgeois family with four daughters who all had the temerity to marry men without pearly white skin, much to the horror of their parents (the paterfamilias was played by veteran comedian Christian Clavier). This time, Clavier plays Jean-Etienne Fougerole, a left-wing celebrity intellectual modeled on the equally wild-haired Bernard-Henri Levy. He has just published a new book called With Open Arms, about immigration issues, and is asked to defend it on television, where Barzach (Marc Arnaud), his right-wing opponent (who, for some reason, is gay), challenges him to actually open the doors of his own home if that’s what required to allow for a much better integration of immigrants.
Put on the spot, Fougerole says yes, much to the dismay of his wife Daphne (Elsa Zylberstein), a prim heiress who thinks herself an artist, and their otherwise not very clearly defined teenage son, Lionel (Oscar Berthe). The same evening Babik (Weddings’ Ary Abittan, an actor who is actually of Maghrebi-Jewish origins) and his extended Romani family knock on their door — well, their automated gate, to be precise — ask for shelter and set up their derelict mobile home somewhere between the foot-deep geometrical pond and the property’s hedges (which are, of course, more carefully trimmed than Cristiano Ronaldo’s eyebrows).
Fougerole’s savvy publicist (Nanou Garcia) thinks this is something worth exploiting, so the family is allowed to stay, though Daphne worries about her valuables and locks them away when they need to leave the door open at night so their guests can use the bathroom. Lionel, meanwhile, drops all objections as soon as he has clapped eyes on Babik’s virginal daughter and the apple of his eye, Lulughia (Nikita Catherine Dragomir). No points for guessing where the latter subplot is headed.
Much like in de Chauveron’s previous films, With Open Arms wants to have its cake and eat it too. Emblematic of this wrong-headed, double-edged approach is a scene in which the Fougeroles are invited over for dinner by Babik’s family. It purportedly shows that they are grateful for having been taken in by a family of good French Samaritans but simultaneously, one guesses to amp up the comedy, the dinner consists of rodent stew made from moles poached from the Fougeroles’ garden, aligning the Romani with the grimy and blind subterranean creatures and suggesting they need to steal in order to prepare a thank-you meal for someone. And as if the moles aren’t enough, one of the family members of Babik is a simpleton with really bad teeth — “no brain but he’s nice,” Babik explains — who is transported by the family in the trunk of their car, together with a massive pig that later ravages the Fougeroles’ pristine kitchen, again suggesting the Romani are backwards and dirty.
To make matters worse, it is suggested Babik is a selfish opportunist, as he turns away a second family of Romani that arrives, telling his new landlord: “You give them one hand and they take your whole arm!” They are also depicted as lazy throughout, simply enjoying their newfound wealth in white French suburbia. The film can’t quite muster the same tone of mockery for Daphne, who has inherited her wealth and whose terrible work as an artist is only a pastime though supposedly she has earned that right because her parents or grandparents worked hard for that money.
Equally wrong-headed is the Fougeroles’ relationship with their butler, an Anglophone Indian named Ravi who is played by British-born actor Armen Georgian, of Middle Eastern extraction, in blackface (!) and a turban. Ravi is 100 percent servile to his white masters but looks down on the non-white visitors they have accepted into their midst. Since this supporting character has no real backstory or character development of his own to speak of, how else can this be understood other than suggesting that the white race is somehow superior to everyone else?
Even besides all the blatant racism and xenophobia, the film an sich is a mess. The acting is broad but not all the actors play in the same register, with Zylberstein clearly on another planet than Clavier, and Berthe so subdued he doesn’t feel like the son of his parents at all. The female characters are all completely one-note and their behavior makes absolutely no sense; Daphne’s actions seem inspired more by plot necessities than any kind of consistent moral compass, however misguided it may be. The need for a happy ending also makes all the preceding bigotry seem very strange; is the message that Romani are dirty and lazy but they throw a mean party (just don’t touch the food!), play good music and are therefore worth marrying? The can’t-we-all-get-along vibe of the film’s last reel feels about as genuine as a cannibal’s promise to finally become a vegetarian.
De Chauveron never explores the subject of racism and xenophobia in any meaningful way, instead just hoping to score laughs by relying on the exact cliches and gross generalizations that are the breeding ground for racism and perceived differences. Beyond committing the capital comedy sin of not being funny, this movie is also morally disturbing.
Production companies: Camera One, Ouille Productions, Pulsar Productions, SND, Nexus Factory, Umedia, M6 Films
Cast: Christian Clavier, Ary Abitan, Elsa Zylberstein, Cyril Lecomte, Nanou Garcia, Oscar Berthe, Mirela Nicolau, Ioana Visalon, Nikita Catherine Dragomir, Marian Samu, Armen Georgian
Director: Philippe de Chauveron
Screenplay: Guy Laurent, Marc de Chauveron, Philippe de Chauveron
Producers: Patrice Ledoux
Director of photography: Philippe Guilbert
Production designer: Alain Veissier
Costume designer: Florence Sadaune
Editor: Philippe Bourgueil
Music: Herve Rakotofiringa
Casting: Coralie Amedeo
In French, Romani, English
No rating, 92 minutes
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