In the Courtyard (Dans la cour): Berlin Review

in the courtyard Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

in the courtyard Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

Lonely old souls connect in a Parisian apartment building in this touching and funny film.

French director Pierre Salvadori's latest is a bittersweet and occasionally hilarious comedy-drama that stars Catherine Deneuve and Gustave Kelvern.

BERLIN -- Against all odds, a solitary drunkard finds a job as a concierge of a run-down Parisian apartment building in Pierre Salvadori’s bittersweet and occasionally hilarious In the Courtyard (Dans la cour).

Gustave Kervern, who is more famous as a co-director, with Benoit Delepine, of eccentric little films such as Aaltra, Louise-Michel and Mammuth, here stars as the sad-sack lead opposite French screen royalty Catherine Deneuve, who plays a retired woman who lives on the top floor with her husband, who fears she might be going a little cuckoo. The film similarly has moments of slightly surreal craziness that, however, can’t dampen the lovely emotional undertow that develops as the flawed but oh so human characters of Kervern and Deneuve become more dependent on each other.

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Though not quite uncomplicated enough to follow in the footsteps of apartment-building comedies such as The Women on the 6th Floor or The Gilded Cage, which were huge hits across Europe, In the Courtyard certainly has a shot a decent box-office numbers in France, where it’ll be released March 5, and should also be a solid seller for sales agent Wild Bunch.

The film opens backstage at a rock concert of the band Maaloxxx and indeed the lead singer, Antoine (Kervern), is in pain. He refuses to go on because of his problems with insomnia and, like a third-rate Shia LaBeouf, finally walks across the stage, with his roll along, to the exit while the band plays the first song’s intro for the eleventh time.

Salvadori then cuts to Antoine at a job center, where he’s landed clearly more out of necessity than of his own will. This leads to a job interview for a janitor position at a Parisian apartment building that has seen better times and though the person conducting the interview, Serge (Feodor Atkine), thinks Antoine is hopeless, strange and a liar to boot -- he clearly has no relevant experience or social skills -- Serge’s wife, Mathilde (Deneuve), insists they hire him. Her chuckle-inducing and somehow very logical comeback to Serge’s observation that Antoine’s a bad liar: “That’s rather reassuring, it means he doesn’t do it very often.”

Antoine is thus given a job and moves into the tiny studio at the entrance of the building and slowly making acquaintance with all the tenants. They include not only Mathilde and Serge but also Stephane (Pio Marmai), a bicycle thief and drug addict, and Monsieur Maillard (Nicolas Bouchaud), a finicky architect who asks Antoine to tell Stephane he needs to get rid of all the bikes in the courtyard. A Russian homeless man, Lev (Oleg Kupchik), who sells esoteric self-help books -- a potential source of humor that Salvadori doesn’t quite know how to milk for laughs -- and his gigantic dog also become de-facto lodgers when they secretly move in to the building’s storage room which, in a telling detail, is at least three times as big as the concierge’s apartment.

Though Maillard and Lev remain outlines rather than characters, Salvadori, who co-wrote the screenplay with David Colombo-Leotard (one of his co-writers on his 2003 film After You), gives Stephane and Antoine a beautifully observed scene that fills in Stephane’s sad backstory and cements the connection between the two that’s needed for some unexpected events in the third act. Mathilde also becomes confused and slightly irrational, especially after she discovers a large crack in the wall of her apartment that gives her the idea the entire building might soon collapse.

The screenplay manages to push everyday situations toward something slightly more absurd and comical, such as when a building expert tries to explain that the building is absolutely safe but the countless arrows and lines he draws on a technical map to back up his point end up making Mathilde more rather than less worried. Crucially, though all the characters get a little eccentric at times and some of their antics seem to have been imported from boulevard comedies rather than inspired by real life, in the overall scheme of things, the ensemble remains grounded in a recognizable reality.

Salvadori, whose last couple of films were frothy romantic comedies with Audrey Tautou, and his actors manage to infuse the characters, who are a lot older here, with a gentle humanity that surfaces not despite but rather because they are slightly lost and need those around them. Both Deneuve and Kervern movingly suggest Mathilde and Antoine are needy and fundamentally lonely characters that could indeed go a little crazy if they’re abandoned by society -- a vicious circle since people have a tendency to abandon them exactly when they start showing signs of needing support. 

Gilles Henry’s cinematography occasionally looked a tad crude at the digital projection caught in Berlin, though his work is key in ensuring In the Courtyard feels like a film rather than filmed play. Production and costume design suggest the building and its inhabitants are respectable but have seen better times.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, France 2 Cinema, Delta Cinema
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Gustave Kervern, Feodor Atkine, Pio Marmai, Michele Moretti, Nicolas Bouchaud, Oleg Kupchik
Director: Pierre Salvadori
Screenwriters: Pierre Salvadori, David Colombo-Leotard
Producer: Philippe Martin
Director of photography: Gilles Henry
Production designer: Michel Barthelemy
Music: Stephin Merritt, Gregoire Hetzel
Costume designer: Virginie Montem
Editor: Isabelle Devinck
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 97 minutes