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The films of prolific director Anne Fontaine range from the serious (Agnus Dei, Nathalie) to the ridiculous (Perfect Mothers) to the slickly entertaining (The Girl From Monaco, Coco Before Chanel, Gemma Bovery), making her one of the more diversified filmmakers operating in this sort of semi-commercial vein in France.
Her latest effort, Reinventing Marvin (or just Marvin in French), is a stab at yet another genre: the queer coming-of-age story, which she mixes into a confessional performance piece that includes, among other fourth wall-breaking elements, Isabelle Huppert co-starring as herself. The result is a hodgepodge that blends a few emotionally poignant moments with uncomfortable stabs at kitchen-sink drama and more blissful scenes of sexual healing (including a sequence that features the actual song by Marvin Gaye). It’s all a bit overlong and over-the-top, although the lead turn from rising star Finnegan Oldfield (Nocturama) is almost enough to make it work.
Premiering in the Orizzonti sidebar in Venice, the film should see a decent rollout in France, especially since it was inspired by — though not officially based on — writer Edouard Louis’ best-selling 2014 autobiography The End of Eddie (En finir avec Eddie Bellegueule). Overseas pickups could include distributors catering to Francophiles and LGBTQ audiences, though a slightly shorter running time would help push the film further abroad.
Constantly hopping between past, present and a black box theater setting, the screenplay (by Fontaine and Pierre Trividic) follows the saga of Marvin Bijou (played by Oldfield as a young adult, and Jules Porier as a teenager). Born into a very rough working-class family in the French equivalent of the Deep South, the boy is forced from a young age to contend with ruthless bullies, mean-spirited siblings and an alcoholic father (Gregory Gadebois) who can be both tender and incredibly thick.
From the very start — and through plenty of voiceover recited by Marvin, who later on takes the stage name of Martin Clement — it’s clear that this kid is not where he belongs. He’s sensitive, slightly effeminate and has the unfortunate last name of “Bijou” (“Jewel”), making him easy prey for a gang of cruel country bumpkins who, at one point, force him to perform fellatio on their leader in the school bathroom. Meanwhile at home, Marvin’s dad defines the term “faggot” as “a degenerate thing, a sort of mental illness,” even as it becomes increasingly clear that the man’s son is gay.
In the present, we learn that Martin is in his twenties and living in Paris, where he’s part of a theater scene that includes avant-garde director (played by actual theater director and screen actor Vincent Macaigne) and, later on, Huppert, who he first meets at a party thrown by his wealthy sugar daddy, Roland (Charles Berling). The contrast between the hard-knock life of small-town France and the bourgeois pleasantries of Paris is heavily emphasized by Fontaine, who keeps cutting back and forth between them to show how Marvin/Martin doesn’t really seem to feel at home in either — even if Paris marks a step up from the homophobic boonies.
If the flashbacking structure works at first, it can grow tiresome by the film’s third act, which feels 10-15 minutes too long and keeps hammering home points we’ve already grasped. More problematic are the early depictions of Marvin’s family, which, however earnest (and clearly inspired by Louis’ novel), border on caricature, like we’re watching a French version of The Beverly Hillbillies. Eventually the parents are shown with a little more tact, especially after their more outlandish antics become the source of a one-man show that Martin — who goes on to study theater in high school and college — successfully premieres in Paris, turning him into a national celebrity.
Like the film, the show itself feels a little naïve and overwrought, like it’s trying too hard plead its case, and Fontaine doesn’t always seem to be at ease with the material. She is, however, a strong director of actors, and Oldfield is particularly a revelation here, literally laying himself bare before the camera to portray Marvin’s long, hard struggle to find his way in life. It’s an intensely subdued performance that can be touching in spots, and hardly requires all the nonstop gushy music or slow-motion shots to move us.
The rest of the cast is strong, with Gadebois (Angel & Tony) gradually turning Marvin’s dad into a more nuanced character, and Macaigne cutting out his usual neurotic antics to become our hero’s intellectual benefactor once he arrives in Paris. Huppert is perfect as, well, Huppert, taking an interest in Marvin early on and eventually becoming an integral part of his artistic and personal development.
Production companies: P.A.S. Productions, F Comme Film
Cast: Finnegan Oldfield, Gregory Gadebois, Vincent Macaigne, Isabelle Huppert, Cahterine Salee, Jules Porier, Charles Berling, Catherine Mouchet
Director: Anne Fontaine
Screenwriters: Anne Fontaine, Pierre Trividic
Producers: Philippe Carcassone, Jean-Louis Livi
Director of photography: Yves Angelo
Production designer: Emmanuel de Chauvigny
Costume designer: Elise Ancion
Editor: Annette Dutertre
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Orizzonti)
Sales: TF1 Studio
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