Longwave (Les Grandes Ondes (a l'Ouest)): Locarno Review

A charming if occasionally bumpy period dramedy.

Valerie Donzelli, Michel Vuillermoz and newcomer Francisco Belard star in Swiss filmmaker Lionel Baier's period comedy-drama set during Portugal's 1974 Carnation Revolution.

LOCARNO -- Two mismatched Swiss radio reporters stumble upon the Carnation Revolution in 1974 Portugal in Longwave (Les grandes ondes (à l’ouest)), a charming if occasionally bumpy period dramedy from francophone Swiss director Lionel Baier (Garçon stupide).

Baier casts French actress and occasional director Valerie Donzelli (Declaration of War) and Comedie française actor Michel Vuillermoz (Midnight in Paris) as a combative feminist and experienced, seen-it-all veteran reporter, respectively, and the two professionals milk their somewhat two-dimensional characters for as much laughs as they can, though the duo's incompatibility does often feel perfunctory. The film’s true attraction lies in its attractively photographed Iberian setting, which provides not only the expected exotic — from a Swiss point of view — clichés but also a possibility for Baier to indirectly comment on today’s southern Europe, which is in the throes of a dire financial crisis and in desperate need of another victimless revolution.

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Longwave premiered in Locarno’s Piazza Grande, and will be released in co-producing Switzerland and France later this year, while Portuguese audiences will have to wait for next year, when the Carnation Revolution celebrates its 40th anniversary. Films Boutique has already sold the crowd-pleasing item to several other territories.

Francophone Swiss reporters Julie (Donzelli) and Cauvin (Vuillermoz) are dispatched to Portugal after their boss (director and occasional actor Jean-Stephane Bron, also a producer here), is told by the authorities that French-language state radio needs to stop stirring the political pot and concentrate on more positive subjects. They are accompanied by a radio technician, the initially silent Bob (Patrick Lapp, a Swiss theater actor famous for his own radio program). But their initial mission, to report on Swiss aid projects in Portugal, is a disaster, partly because Cauvin says he masters the language but instead only speaks gibberish (a running gag that soon grows tired). 

The crew finally hire 17-year-old local Pele (saucer-eyed newcomer Francisco Belard), who has learnt French from the movies of his idol, Marcel Pagnol, to be their translator, but the success rate doesn’t quite improve, as showcased in a chuckle-inducing interview with the casually racist owner of a water purification plant built with Swiss money.

But the hit-and-miss nature of the episodic material, written by Baier and Julien Bouissoux, improves greatly when the motley crew decide to go home and in the Portuguese countryside run into their francophone Belgian colleagues of RTB state radio (erroneously referred to as RTBF, though that name wasn’t in use until 1977), who tell them that a revolution is on in Lisbon, sending the crew straight to the Portuguese capital to report on the action.

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In keeping with the period setting, evoked on a tight budget that occasionally shows, the humor is often gentle and somewhat old-fashioned. Some of the jokes are extremely local, such as the casting of Brussels-based Swiss director Ursula Meier (Lea Seydoux vehicle Sister) as one of the Belgian reporters (she’s also, like Baier and Bron, a partner in production company Bande a part Films). And a lot of the story details have a bittersweet undertone, such as the fact Pele — played by Belard like an innocent, effortlessly charming 15-year-old — is two months shy of 18 and about to be enlisted by Salazar’s army, though he’s finally saved by the revolution.

A somewhat surprising but mostly effective choice is the music of Gershwin on the soundtrack, with a song from Porgy and Bess making an appearance during an impromptu dance sequence in the Lisbon streets that further underlines just how heterogeneous much of the material is.

The "à l'ouest" in the original title refers to the West as well as the fact Baier plans to make a tetralogy based on the four cardinal points.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)

Production companies: Bande a part Films, Les Films Peleas, Rita Productions, Filmes do Tejo II, RTS
Cast: Valerie Donzelli, Michel Vuillermoz, Patrick Lapp, Francisco Belard, Jean-Stephane Bron, Paul Riniker, Patricia Andre, Adrien Barazzone
Director: Lionel Baier
Screenwriter: Lionel Baier, Julien Bouissoux
Producers: Pauline Gygax, Max Karli, Philippe Martin, Ursula Meier, Lionel Baier, Jean-Stephane Bron et Frederic Mermoud
Co-producers: Maria-Joao Meier, François d’Artemare, Alberto Chollet, Sophie Sallin
Director of photography: Patrick Lindenmaier
Production designer: Georges Ayusawa
Music: George Gershwin
Costume designer: Francoise Nicolet
Editor: Pauline Gaillard
Sales: Films Boutique
No rating, 85 minutes.