My Worst Nightmare: Toronto Review

The comic friction of extreme opposites interacting yields some laughs early on, but this artificial quasi-romance becomes increasingly hard to swallow.

Director Anne Fontaine's French comedy about a mismatched relationship.

There are intermittent pleasures in watching Anne Fontaine’s My Worst Nightmare (Mon Pire Cauchemar), but this glossy French comedy about a mismatched relationship seems hatched less out of a plausible screenplay than a casting conceit: Hey, let’s throw imperious ice queen Isabelle Huppert and loosey-goosey Belgian funnyman Benoit Poelvoorde together and see what happens!

Unfortunately, what happens is that despite some charm in this odd-couple pairing, they slide into a contrived movie-ish reality that makes the average Hollywood rom-com look like Ken Loach-ian social realism.

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Written by Nicolas Mercier and Fontaine, the film sets up Huppert’s Agathe as the Euro-chic art-world answer to Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. Agathe runs a contemporary art gallery where she barks terse commands at nervous minions while contemplating minimalist monochrome works. Into her sterile domain stumbles Patrick (Poelvoorde), an uncouth, irresponsible drunk whose smart teenage son, Tony (Corentin Devroey), befriends Agathe’s kid, Adrien (Donatien Suner).

To Agathe’s dismay, Adrien’s father, Francois (Andre Dussollier), lets Patrick into their lives to work on a construction project in their swanky apartment. A publisher who has learnt to live in the sub-zero climate of Agathe’s aura, Francois warms to Patrick over coffee and a lewd chat about the rewards of sex with fat women. Given that bedroom action at home ended long ago, Francois is drawn like a moth to a flame when he meets Julie (Virginie Efira), a social worker attempting to find housing for Patrick to enable him to keep Tony out of foster care.

Only in French cinema or the films of Woody Allen do gorgeous young women like Julie fall for spent middle-aged gents like Francois, unless they’re obscenely wealthy or powerful. But that’s just one area in which believability is strained. More problematic is control freak Agathe’s acceptance of Patrick becoming a permanent fixture around the house.

Of course, her bourgeois facade is destined to give way to the bohemian spirit trapped inside as the family units reform and both Agathe and Patrick re-evaluate their attitudes to life, with all sorts of improbable developments along the way.

Huppert is well cast and, while it’s never her forte, she manages to convey some warmth beneath Agathe’s chill, even if there’s never a strong enough sense of the suffocation that might have allowed us to buy her halting romance with vulgarian Patrick. To the extent that the comedy works, it’s largely due to Poelvoorde’s ability to show nuances of longing, vulnerability and self-criticism beneath his blunt exterior. There’s a lot going on behind the goofy expressions, the pronounced schnoz and gangly frame, which to some extent saves the film long after its plotting has unraveled.

Dussollier is mild-mannered and sympathetic, if a little lost-looking, while Efira is presented as a real person and then abruptly transformed into a silly caricature of a New Age tree-hugger. As the kids, Devroey and Suner put a nice, easy spin on teen affectlessness that belongs in a more dramatically sound context.

Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel) can certainly put together a polished production, even if her fascination with freeing uptight women from their own shackles has been exercised once too often in her films. But there’s something a little too orderly and pat about the crisp visuals, brisk editing and melodious score. It’s as if lifeless Agathe were setting the tone, not freewheeling Patrick, which would have been much more lively.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Cine- @, Maison de Cinema, Pathe Production, F.B. Production, M6 Films Entre Chien et Loup, Artemis Productions, RTBF
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Benoit Poelvoorde, Andre Dussollier, Virginie Efira, Corentin Devroey, Donatien Suner, Aurelien Recoing
Director: Anne Fontaine
Screenwriter: Nicolas Mercier, Anne Fontaine
Producers: Francis Boespflug, Philippe Carcassone, Bruno Pesery, Jerome Seydoux
Director of photography: Jean-Marc Fabre
Production designer: Olivier Radot
Music: Bruno Coulais
Costume designers: Catherine Leterrier, Karen Muller-Serreau
Editors: Luc Barnier, Nelly Ollivault
Sales: Pathe International
No rating, 99 minutes.