The Fairy (La Fee): Cannes Review

Sprightly slapstick comedy is both insightful and irreverent.

Belgium-based trio Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy open the Directors' Fortnight with an ingenious, whimsical tale.

CANNES -- Dishing out another slew of colorfully anarchistic sight gags, Belgium-based trio Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy are back with their latest Keystone-style romp, The Fairy (La Fee). Firmly grounded in the work of Chaplin, Keaton and especially Jacques Tati, to which they add a few welcome socio-political twists, these talented writers-directors-actors should have their wish granted with further arthouse exposure following an opening bow in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight.

As they already revealed in their previous features, Iceberg and Rumba (which played the 2008 Critics’ Week), the team applies an old school approach to their light-hearted comic scenarios, lining up a series of slapstick episodes that hark back to the silent film era, and could justifiably work without any sound at all. While dialogue is sparingly and often cleverly used, music however plays an important role by allowing these acrobatic performers to engage in a handful of graceful dance sequences that serve as brief intermissions to the action.

Set in the gloomy port city of Le Havre, the film kicks off with its most successfully extended number when we’re introduced to a hotel night clerk, Dom (Abel), who’s pleasant soiree in front of the TV is interrupted with the arrival of an English tourist (Philippe Martz), and then of a svelte, shoeless woman (Gordon), who claims she’s a fairy and grants Dom three wishes. Like any self-respecting Frenchman living outside of Paris, Dom asks for a scooter and an endless supply of gas, and though he gets his wish, what he really wants is the love of the fairy herself.

Thus begins a series of skillfully executed, increasingly irreverent bits which accompany Dom and the fairy as they try to reunite, and in the process cross paths with African immigrants (Vladimir Zorano, Wilson Goma) attempting to hop the ferry to England. This, along with the fairy’s internment in a psychiatric hospital, adds a darker bent to the otherwise jovial atmosphere, and its through such contradictions that Gordon and Abel manage to underline their comedy with an honest emotional calling.

Though some of the gags fall short, and the story slows down about midway through, there’s enough ingenuity in the filmmakers’ approach to keep one guessing as to what will be the next brunt of the joke: a pen, a puppy, even a newborn baby are all up for grabs, and it’s encouraging to find humor that can be rowdy without dropping f-bombs or tossing out pairs of panties (which isn’t to say that the two are afraid to perform in the nude, or to simulate both a drug overdose and a live birth on the ledge of a four-story building.)

Tati’s hand is evident in the exceptionally precise art direction and camerawork by regulars Nicholas Girault and Claire Childeric, which allows each joke to build itself through repetition and the addition of unexpected elements. The retro attitude is further apparent in the recurrence of jazz standard “What a Difference a Day Makes,” as well as the use of rear projection in a road chase that may shock some in its all-out recklessness.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Directors’ Fortnight (Opening Film)
Sales: MK2 International
Production companies: MK2, Courage Mon Amour, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy, Philippe Martz, Vladimir Zorano, Wilson Goma
Directors-screenwriters: Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy
Producers: Nathaniel Karmitz, Charles Gilibert, Abel & Gordon
Executive producer: Marina Festre
Director of photography: Claire Childeric
Production designer: Nicholas Girault
Costume designer: Claire Dublen
Editor: Sandrine Deegen
No rating, 94 minutes