Henri: Cannes Review

Henri Cannes Directors Fortnight Still - H 2013

Henri Cannes Directors Fortnight Still - H 2013

Local color enriches a gently comic, slightly underpowered tale of unlikely friendship and quasi-romance.

Pippo Delbono and Candy Ming star in popular Belgian actress Yolande Moreau's second film as director, the closing film of the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes.

A low-key French-Belgian charmer with its heart in the right place, Henri somehow never quite manages to click into proper romantic or comic gear. A second outing as writer-director for ever-popular Belgian actress Yolande Moreau, a colorfully lively presence in French cinema for nearly three decades, it was warmly received as the closer of Directors' Fortnight at Cannes, indicating domestic potential as a mid-range crowd-pleaser during its pre-Christmas release.

Further festival bookings will follow for a film aiming squarely at an oldish demographic. And while significantly wider success along the lines of Intouchables or Welcome to the Sticks is improbable, Henri may nevertheless emulate those box-office smashes by attracting Stateside remake interest. Such a redo would have to do sharpen the somewhat wispy contours of Moreau's screenplay, which under-uses two potentially distinctive screen presences in the form of leads Pippo Delbono and Candy Ming.

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Italian theater-innovator Delbono, exuding a John C. Reilly vibe here, has carved an international reputation with stage-works that combine carnival, dance and music to energetic and often dazzling effect. Not that you'd suspect such shenanigans here, so persuasively does he incarnate the schlubby, doughy, fiftyish Henri Salvator, who with his wife Rita ('Lio') runs a village pub not far from the French border. When Rita dies unexpectedly, the widower drifts morosely into a boozy rut, to the chagrin of grown-up daughter Laetitia (Gwen Berrou).

At the urging of his barfly cronies Bibi (Jackie Berroyer) and Rene (Simon Andre), Henri employs Rosette (Ming), a twentysomething woman resident in a local care-facility for the mentally handicapped, to help with running the bar. Naive in sexual matters, the sweetly meek Rosette is fascinated by all things romantic, which yields awkward consequences for the monosyllabic, increasingly drink-befuddled Henri. 

Moreau, 60, enjoyed great personal success with When The Sea Rises (2004), co-written and co-directed with Gilles Porte. Landing Cesar awards for Best Actress and Best First Film, it even landed fleeting U.S. arthouse run, faring respectably on a handful of screens. She later found her signature role as the eponymous housekeeper-turned-painter in Martin Provost's Seraphine (2009), notching a second Best Actress Cesar, while in recent years also she's become part of the stock company of anarchic cine-provocateurs Gustave de Kervern and Benoit Delepine. The latter are responsible for all three previous big-screen appearances by ethereally off-beat Ming, an autistic poet, sculptor and singer usually billed as 'Miss Ming.' 

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Given the unorthodox backgrounds of Delbono (Tilda Swinton's boorish husband in Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love) and Ming, plus Moreau's track record of envelope-pushing collaborators, Henri is a surprisingly safe-hands, middle-of-the-road affair, one which never really engages with its valuable central theme: the sexual life of people with mental handicaps and/or health issues. 

"We joke about it, but we don't cross the Rubicon" says Bibi, when there's the suggestion that Henri and Rosette's relationship might have gone beyond friendship and/or accepted employee-employer interactions. Henri's way of dealing with this tricky situation involves leaving his village for a spell at the Dutch seaside with Rosette in tow, but there's always a sense that the film is choosing to handle potentially controversial material in a muted, arm's-length manner.

Returning to the chilly, flat, gray terrain explored in her debut, Moreau is on safer ground when it comes to evoking the peculiarities and character of this often-overlooked corner of northern Europe. Henri's pigeon-racing hobby gives us privileged peeks into one of Wallonia's most popular sport, and while Moreau's M.O. eschews directorial flights of fancy, her use of very slight slow-motion when the birds are in flight successfully conveys both Rosette's wonderment and the belated budding of the lass's delicate sensuality. Moreau's own virtuouso cameo as a motormouth party-organizer, meanwhile, provides a welcome burst of hilarity in a picture which is otherwise content to milk the occasional chuckle.

Venue:  Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight - Closing Film)
Opens (France):  December 4 (Le Pacte)
Production companies:  Christmas In July, Versus, France 3 Cinema, F Comme Film
Cast:  Pippo Delbono, Candy Ming, Jackie Berroyer, Simon Andre, Gwen Berrou
Director/Screenwriter:  Yolande Moreau
Producer:  Julie Salvador
Director of photography:  Philippe Guilbert
Production designer:  Marc-Philippe Guerig
Costume designer:  Alexandra Charles
Editor:  Fabrice Rouaud
Music:  Wim Willaert
Sales: Le Pacte, Paris
No MPAA rating, 107 minutes