'Paris Follies' ('La Ritournelle'): Film Review

PARIS FOLLIES Film Still - H 2014
Avenue B Productions

PARIS FOLLIES Film Still - H 2014

Isabelle Huppert impresses as a middle-aged farmer's wife who decides to treat herself to three days in Paris.

French director Marc Fitoussi reunites with actress Isabelle Huppert, who starred in his "Copacabana," for this comedy-drama.

PARIS -- A cattle farmer’s wife from rural France gets a little lightheaded once she gets to the capital in Paris Follies (La Ritournelle), the second feature of director Marc Fitoussi to cast icy diva Isabelle Huppert in an unexpectedly warm and touching register, after their earlier collaboration on the Cannes-selected Copacobana.

A bittersweet melodrama that tackles the possibility of marital infidelity in middle age in an unexpectedly perceptive yet very French manner, this modest but well-performed and beautifully assembled comedy-drama isn’t funny or starry enough to do The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel numbers but should nonetheless be able to tap into the growing market of older audiences looking to be entertained in cinemas both at home and abroad. The film opened in France June 11.

Huppert is Brigitte, who dutifully cooks each day for her husband, the good-hearted but a little stuffy Xavier (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), and their farmhand, Regis (Jean-Charles Clichet), and who helps out during the bovine beauty contests where Xavier goes to show off his most beautiful animals.

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Decked out by costume designer Marite Coutard like the leading lady in a Douglas Sirk movie and topped off with an extravagant fur hat that brings to mind Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago more than any agrarian wife from contemporary Normandy on the wrong side of 40, Brigitte even visually looks like someone who belongs elsewhere from scene one.

It’s thus not a surprise when a handsome Parisian in his early 30s, Stan (Pio Marmai), notices her when he tries to escape from a party at a farm down the road and stumbles upon Brigitte. Flattered, she goes back with her new acquaintance to the bash, where Stan, played with cocky glee by Marmai, comes on strong; when she asks him what book he’s reading, because he’s carrying one in the back pocket of his jeans, he simply states: "you’re checking out my ass!" Indeed, throughout the film, which Fitoussi also wrote, the choice of words as well as the intention behind them and their tone help paint a fuller picture of each of the very different leads. 

With no hands-on experience in dating for at least the last three decades, it takes Brigitte a while to realize where the drinks, pleasant conversation and company may lead and she finally ends up withdrawing to the safety of her own home. But the seeds of doubt and, no doubt, desire, have been planted and when she needs to make an appointment to see a dermatologist -- because of a spot of eczema that Fitoussi is too eager to also give a symbolical meaning -- Brigitte uses it as an excuse to offer herself a three-day trip to Paris, where her first stop will be the fashion store where Stan works.

What follows are Brigitte’s adventures in the capital, which take both her and the audience by surprise. Not necessarily because of what happens -- if anything, the film’s second half is the more conventional of the two -- but because the carefully established picture of Brigitte earlier in the film as someone aloof and devoted but emotionally quite detached shrewdly comes undone here. Fitoussi adds a delightful further complication by having Xavier realize that something’s not quite right in Paris, so he comes to the city as well, where he tries to figure out what his until-then loyal wife is really up to and what this means for them and him.

Huppert anchors the movie with a beautifully modulated performance in which her character slowly awakens to the idea of a second youth even as she’s almost constantly held back by her realization that she’s married and that that must mean something. Amazingly, Huppert and Darroussin (A Very Long Engagement) have never appeared in a film together, though the sense they are an old couple going way back is evident from the start and remains so strong throughout the film that Paris Follies is finally more about a husband and wife that have grown apart rather than necessarily about a woman trying to break free in middle age.

The supporting cast is filled with French name actors in bit parts, including Anais Demoustier (Bird People), Audrey Dana (Welcome) and Marina Fois (Polisse), as well as a simpatico turn from Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist (who played Daniel Craig’s role in the original Dragon Tattoo), who plays another potential love interest.  

Production companies: Avenue B, Vito films, SND, France 2 Cinema, Les Films de la Suane

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Michael Nyqvist, Pio Marmai, Jean-Charles Clichet, Marina Fois, Audrey Dana, Anais Demoustier, Clement Metayer, Lakshan Abenayake

Writer-Director: Marc Fitoussi

Producer: Caroline Bonmarchand

Co-producer: Isaac Sharry

Director of photography: Agnes Godard

Production designer: Francois Emmanuelli

Costume designer: Marite Coutard

Editor: Fred Souquet

Composer: Tim Gane, Sean O’Hagan

Sales: SND

No rating, 98 minutes