'Four Days in France' ('Jours de France'): Film Review

Courtesy of M-Appeal/Unifrance
Anonymous Hookups: The Movie.

French filmmaker Jerome Reybaud's feature debut stars Pascal Cervo as a gay man on a road trip through rural France.

For a two-hour-plus film in which the protagonists are two gay men and the hookup app Grindr plays the most important supporting role, it is surprising how little sex there is in Four Days in France (Jours de France). But that’s hardly the only thing that’s unexpected in this tender and meandering road movie from rookie writer-director Jerome Raybaud. The bucolic and languidly paced drama premiered in the Critics’ Week at the most recent Venice International Film Festival and was also showcased as part of last month’s New Directors/New Films program in New York. It should interest queer and French film showcases, though given its length and relative lack of skin, it might be a tougher sell as a home-viewing item to at least the usual gay niche distributors.

Without any explanation, thirtysomething Pierre (Pascal Cervo) takes one last look at the sleeping Paul (Arthur Igual) in their Paris apartment and then hits the road in his white Alfa Romeo. He’s got no clear destination in mind, instead moving from A to B using the addresses of people he’s connected with on Grindr or indications for potential gay cruising places he’s found on the internet. The only thing that is clear is that the clean-shaven man is slowly heading south and that he’s a fan of these random and mostly anonymous encounters.

By the time Pierre has hooked up with 20-year-old provincial ephebe Matthieu (Mathieu Chevé) — whose perfectly sculpted derriere would have inspired the likes of Praxiteles some 25 centuries ago — Paul has started looking for Pierre. But instead of simply calling him to figure out where and/or why he’s gone, he uses the geo-localization feature on Grindr to try and track his lover down without being noticed himself. (The app shows how close any person with an active profile is to the person looking to hook up, thus making it possible to more or less figure out someone’s whereabouts; in the countryside this is, of course, a lot easier than in large cities.)

Four Days in France thus offers the viewers two parallel road trips. First there is Pierre’s, who seems to enjoy his newfound freedom and who meets both gay men for (possible) encounters and various women he runs into by chance and frequently offers a ride. Paul’s journey is less carefree and more focused, though trying to get closer to someone who is himself moving around somewhat aimlessly can be frustrating (the possibility to see this as a metaphor for the difficulty of pursuing long-term relationships is certainly there, though the story’s tone is naturalistic enough not to belabor this point).

Reybaud, who wrote the screenplay as well, also has a sly sense of humor. There’s a kind of droll irony, for example, in Pierre, a man who chases sexual encounters with unknowns, telling a female singer (Fabienne Babe) he’s giving that he’s not the kind of man who likes to be touched. And Paul first realizes Pierre might not be coming back at a performance of Così fan tutte, the Mozart opera about two women who fall into the arms of each other’s disguised fiancés, thus cheating on their other halves but unaware of the direct consequences. And an encounter between Paul and the aunt of Pierre (Liliane Montevecchi), an aging theater diva who tells him in no uncertain terms not to go and look for her nephew because it’s “not the virile thing to do,” is similarly shot through with irony and black humor.

As with almost all road-trip movies, the narrative is fragmented and sprawling as especially Pierre meets one new stranger after the other. Indeed, with its rather too thinly stretched 141-minute running time and without much of an overarching narrative — Pierre and Paul have no backstory to speak of, making it hard to judge if they even deserve a future together — Four Days in France can finally only be as strong as its weakest scenes.

Some of the encounters on the road, such as Pierre’s delivery of a parcel to a woman whose pet just died or Paul’s interaction with a woman who works at a sandwich chain (Corinne Coureges), are wonderfully played vignettes that could function as stand-alone shorts that reveal something about both human behavior in general and about rural France specifically. Others, such as Pierre’s meeting with a female bookstore owner (Nathalie Richard) whose studies he used to pay for, or his equally strange interaction with a robber (Laetitia Dosch) who steals his bag, are underdeveloped. Without a clear sense of Pierre’s moral compass, for example, his behavior when confronted with a thief registers more as baffling than as logical, while it is never really clear what kind of shared history Pierre and the bookseller have, which makes it hard to read their present-day encounter.

Both Pierre and Paul are only thinly sketched, more defined by their behavior than by any sense of who they are as people and Four Days in France is certainly not a character- or narrative-driven drama, an impression reinforced by understated acting of the cast. What the film does offer is gorgeous shots of the French countryside and an idea of how different gay men navigate present-day life in France, especially away from large urban centers, where some scribble their phone numbers in bathroom stalls, others require total anonymity when hooking up with strangers passing through while some might actually enjoy having another gay man to talk to without necessarily thinking about anything more long-term than the time required for a conversation, copulation and a post-coital cigarette.

The film’s most suggestive encounter — sexual or otherwise — features two men masturbating in unison in two adjacent motel rooms, both facing the same paper-thin wall featuring the same hideous painting (everything remains very PG-13). The traveling salesman (Bertrand Nadler) on one side had earlier met his motel neighbor, Pierre, and they had a conversation, so they aren’t exactly strangers but they still ended up in separate rooms with their sex drives. Could he be married (to someone of either sex) and monogamous; someone who is deep inside the closet; someone who’s had bad experiences with unprotected sex or someone who is simply too shy or afraid of sexual contact? It’s an unusual and very memorable scene, and one that, despite being rather atypical, suggests exactly what might attract people to anonymous encounters in the first place, as it fuels all kinds of possible fantasy scenarios, whether they are in your arms or elsewhere — like behind your motel-room wall.

Production companies: Chaz Productions, Film Factory, TSF
Cast: Pascal Cervo, Arthur Igual, Fabienne Babe, Nathalie Richard, Laetitia Dosch, Liliane Montevecchi, Marie France, Jean-Christophe Bouvet, Mathieu Chevé
Writer-director: Jerome Reybaud
Producer: Elisabeth Perez
Director of photography: Sabine Lancelin
Production designer: Isabelle Voisin
Costume designer: Didier Dahon
Editor: Martial Salomon
Music: Leonard Lasry
Casting: Didier Dahon
Sales: M-Appeal

In French, Italian
141 minutes