'Business Club': FIDMarseille Review

Courtesy of FIDMarseille
Mid-length portrait skewers its hapless subject with lethal elan.

Chloe Mahieu and Lila Pinell's documentary delves into the world of French luxury-brand fashion.

An hour-long glimpse into the gilded corridors of 21st-century privilege, Chloe Mahieu and Lila Pinell's Business Club breathes bubbly new energy into the tired fly-on-the-wall sub-genre. Intimately observing French aristocrat-cum-entrepreneur Arthur de Soultrait in the run-up to his wildly elaborate 32nd birthday party, it's a subtly devastating portrait of both an individual and the class he epitomizes.

The economic running-time may pose a challenge for traditionally-minded film-festivals, but conversely boosts small-screen prospects for one of the more accessible and entertaining pictures unveiled this year at the edgy FIDMarseille.

Founder and CEO of upmarket clothing-brand Vicomte A, Arthur de Soultrait — the "Viscount A" himself — has popped up in gossip columns over the last few years because of his friendship with Pippa Middleton, sister of HRH Kate. This liaison made embarrassing headlines in 2012 when Middleton and de Soultrait were photographed motoring through central Paris in a convertible while one of the latter's pals "threatened" pedestrians with a replica gun.

This led to de Soultrait being dubbed "eccentric" and "controversial" in certain English-language publications, but it's hard to square such labels with the affable, lanky, genial but somewhat uncharismatic individual revealed in Business Club — which makes no mention of his Middleton connection. Indeed, de Soultrait comes across very much like a marginal supporting character from the universe of Whit Stillman, one of those titled Europeans who's the unwitting subject of condescending fascination from social-climbing Americans.

de Soultrait's lack of chutzpah and dynamism is very much part of Pinell and Mahieu's point here, as he displays very little to indicate that he's in charge of a company with 350 outlets in 30 countries (including a store in Palm Beach, Florida). de Soultrait evidently trades heavioly on the allure of his illustrious family-tree and their connections to various French kings and emperors. This comes into particular focus during a chaotic trip to Hong Kong, where he makes awkward small-talk with his ebullient prospective business-partner while generally coming across as a fathom or two out of his depth.

As shown here, Vicomte A — like many luxury brands — finds itself in the tricky position of maintaining its upper-class reputation while simultaneously courting lucrative but brash new demographics and markets. But rather than stoking sympathy for the embattled "one per cent" which de Soultrait represents ("it's really very hard to do business in France now" he sighs), Business Club subtly and without obvious inflection or editorializing paints its subjects in an unflattering light.

Through the eyes of Mahieu and Pinell (previously reponsible for 2012's 65-minute Our Engagement) de Soultrait emerges as a well-meaning but insecure individual, casually and unthinkingly snobish, fatally lacking in self-awareness, stranded in a "classy" but hollow environment of banal glamor and nebulous management-speak. And yet, he seems to be able to survive and even thrive in the supposedly cut-throat world of post-crisis, globalized economics, deciding the fate of unseen employees with unruffled noblesse-oblige hauteur.

Structured chronologically and punctuated with shots of bygone toffs gazing down silently from oil-paintings — the documentaries of a much earlier era — the consistently engaging Business Club ends on a real high with the opulently birthday extravaganza, which is simultaneously a celebration and a risky brand relaunch. The bash's oxymoronically-named "Punk Safari" theme extends to our hapless hero having his hair teased into a purple mohawk and then, in the most jaw-dropping touch of all, the back of his zebra-print suit jacket sprayed with a large circled-A anarchy symbol.

This glyph's incongruity, amid such an atmosphere of money-oriented, unapologetically royalist excess ("my family doesn't sing the Marseillase") speaks amply for itself. And while proceedings do in fact crisply conclude with an overdue Paris "revolution", this one is a mere dancefloor spin which leaves de Soultrait's maman delightedly and smilingly intact. 

Production company: The Factory
Directors / Screenwriters: Chloe Mahieu, Lila Pinell
Cinematographers: Xavier Liberman, Lila Pinell
Editor: Emma Augier
Sales: The Factory, Paris
No Rating, 58 minutes