Paulette: COLCOA Review

Cohen Media Group
Wacky oldsters do the darndest things in this underdeveloped collection of caricatures.

The late Bernadette Lafont, a key figure in the French New Wave, stars as a widow who is struggling to make ends meet and discovers she has a talent for selling hashish.

As the bad-grandma title character in the comic rude-fest Paulette, the late Bernadette Lafont is all in, never playing for sympathy or sugarcoating the nastiness -- more than can be said of the movie itself.

Set in projects on the edges of Paris, the French pic spins off a mildly promising premise: struggling pensioner starts dealing hashish and proves darn good at it. With director Jerome Enrico mining the material for only the most obvious gags, the social commentary of the central joke never rises to the level of hard-hitting satire, instead settling on a broadly observed collection of types. However superficial that approach, it proved crowd-pleasing upon the film’s January 2013 release in France.

Enrico’s second feature (after 2001’s L’origine du monde) took its Los Angeles bow at COLCOA (City of Lights, City of Angels), and is set for a U.S. release via Cohen Media in the second half of 2014. The topicality of the cannabis theme might give it an edge in stateside art houses, but with the intended hilarity seldom hitting the mark, when the smoke clears, Paulette isn’t likely to repeat the box-office success it found on home turf.

Lafont -- who died in July 2013, after a long career that began in the Nouvelle Vague and included frequent collaborations with Claude Chabrol -- is in full-on misanthrope mode as the widowed Paulette, who’s so xenophobic and downright mean-spirited that when her young grandson (Ismael Drame) asks why she doesn’t like him, she snaps that it’s because he’s black. The boy’s mother (Axelle Laffont) and father (Jean-Baptiste Anoumon), a cop on the local beat, can’t always make other babysitting arrangements, and Paulette grudgingly watches the kid. Her hostility toward him is as contrived as it is clearly headed for a third-act redemptive reversal.

Until then, though, she has nothing but bile for everyone, especially those she considers foreign. The antiquated racial epithets fly fast and furious. Her son-in-law of African descent puts up with her disrespect with remarkable good humor, and even appeals to her for help in cracking a neighborhood drug-dealing ring. Instead, after a brick of hash lands somewhat fortuitously in her lap and she discovers its market value, Paulette cuts a deal with the local boss (Paco Boublard), who’s dim in general but no fool when it comes to profit.

With a minuscule learning curve, Paulette establishes a clientele and regains a lifestyle after years of scrimping, scavenging and going into debt. Predictably, her background as a successful baker (the happy years are sketched in an opening-credits montage) comes into play, in the form of delicacies like Afghan Cookies and Space Cakes; they’re part of her enterprising solution when other dealers, not pleased about her cornering the market, get physically threatening.

As the card buddies who endure Paulette’s mistreatment, and who eventually become her partners in a thriving apartment-based business in ganja-infused baked goods, Carmen Maura, Dominique Lavanant and Francoise Bertin are all but wasted. Bertin’s character is “distinguished” from mere sidekick by an unfunny dementia shtick. Along the same lines, there’s Paulette’s ha-ha sobriquet: Granny Junkie.

The humor rarely rises to a higher level. The bits that click suggest the film that might have been: Paulette’s annoyance over French television’s wall-to-wall 9/11 remembrances on the 10th anniversary of the event, which happens to be the 10th anniversary of her husband’s death; a sharp bolt of slapstick involving Anoumon and Andre Penvern, as Paulette’s smitten neighbor.

The visual jokes outshine the writing (credited to the director and three of his screenwriting students). Bruno Privat’s sharp lensing and Antoine Vareille's concise edits are major pluses. But the idea that financial success breeds compassion -- Paulette acquires her more generous attitude along with such commodities as a 60-inch TV -- just feels like an empty reassurance after a string of empty punch lines.


Venue: COLCOA (Cohen Media Group)
Production: Legende Films, Gaumont, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Bernadette Lafont, Carmen Maura, Dominique Lavanant, Francoise Bertin, Jean-Baptiste Anoumon, Andre Penvern, Paco Boublard, Axelle Laffont, Ismael Drame
Director: Jerome Enrico
Screenwriters: Jerome Enrico, Bianca Olsen, Laurie Aubanel, Cyril Rambour
Producer: Alain Goldman
Director of photography: Bruno Privat
Production designer: Christophe Thiollier
Music: Michel Ochowiak
Costume designer: Agnes Falque
Editor: Antoine Vareille
No MPAA rating; 87 minutes