'Place Publique': Film Review

Courtesy of Guy Ferrandis/Le Pacte/Unifrance
Boozy bougie mishaps.

French actress-director Agnes Jaoui ('Look at Me') teams up with her regular actor and co-scribe, Jean-Pierre Bacri, for their latest dissection of contemporary French society.

One of the biggest local films in France last year was the mainstream comedy C’est la vie, in which a wedding caterer, played by professional grouch Jean-Pierre Bacri, saw the perfect day he’d planned for his clients hilariously unravel. What was noteworthy about the project, which closed the Toronto fest, is that it privileged a point of view closer to all the people working that day — from the musicians to the cooks, waiters and wedding photographers — than to the rich people throwing the lavish, chateau-set party.

For those left wondering how the bougie peeps might have felt during such a celebration-turned-calamitous event, now there’s Place Publique, the newest work from actress-director Agnes Jaoui (Look at Me). Her film, technically unrelated, stars her regular co-scribe, a certain Jean-Pierre Bacri, as a famous, over-the-hill TV presenter who attends the housewarming party of his producer, who’s moved into a countryside home straight out of Casa Vogue. His ex-wife, current girlfriend and a host of chic — and some not so chic — guests are also in attendance, with Jaoui again bringing her expert eye for the foibles of the French bourgeoisie to the proceedings.

Released locally without a splashy festival premiere, this should nonetheless do decent business but whether its surface similarities to C’est la vie, which was released just last fall, will be helpful or a hindrance remains to be seen. As a stand-alone item, Place Publique is another solid work from Jaoui that explores not only the age-old quirks and idiosyncrasies of the well-off and privileged but also, more generally, contemporary issues such as the influence of the internet and social media on our lives and how cynicism might be hypocritical but could also be a saving grace.  

The film’s layers of irony start with the title, as “place publique” can be translated as “public space” or “public square” but the film itself unspools almost entirely in the gargantuan private garden and the newly acquired country mansion of Nathalie (Lea Drucker). But no private party remains truly private when guests come armed with their cameraphones and constant social-media access, as Nathalie discovers when she receives a text from an uninvited acquaintance who compliments her on the party’s delicious-looking food that she could’ve tasted had she actually been invited.

Nathalie should be worrying about the party that’s about to start, but in reality she is too busy talking on the phone with her superiors about the gossipy “cultural” TV show she produces. Her middle-aged star presenter, Castro (Bacri), risks being ousted for someone younger, though he’s not aware of this when he arrives at the party with his driver, the young pup, Manu (Kevin Azais). Also attending the party is Nathalie’s sister, Helene (Jaoui), who also happens to be Castro’s ex-wife, and the negative chemistry of the actors — who used to be a couple in real life too and now still collaborate as writing and acting partners — is again one of the film’s chief pleasures. Their barbed exchanges, whether verbal or just in terms of body language and glances, is often wryly funny.

After a mysterious, nighttime prologue that suggests things might not necessarily end well, the film’s first act, set earlier that day, takes a loose-limbed approach to introducing the large sprawling cast. Yves Angelo’s agile camera practically acts as a guest at the party as well, flitting from one conversation and situation to the other in seemingly random order, mimicking the way one might move between and drop in on different conversations at a sprawling outdoors celebration.

The guest list also includes Helene and Castro’s daughter, Nina (Nina Meurisse), who has just written a roman a clef about her upbringing, and Helene and Castro’s current partners (Eric Viellard and Helena Noguerra, respectively). Nathalie’s new Polish squeeze (Miglen Mirtchev) is mainly around to kiss the new home owner and be a source of humor because of his thick accent — a rather facile running gag that's a rare miss — while a locally hired waitress (Sarah Suco) is more interested in snapping selfies with the likes of Castro and twentysomething YouTube sensation Biggistar (Yvick Letexier), whose fame and youth make Castro feel very old and uncomfortable.

As the storylines develop and personalities clash, several themes surface organically. The first is the idea that youth and beauty are often more prized than experience, which can cut both ways. In the professional field, for example, the aging Castro’s job is on the line, while in the field of love, the TV host has no qualms admitting he, too, prefers younger women (cue the pained face of Jaoui, semi-hidden in a much larger shot of the home’s kitchen; as in her other features she avoids melodrama by rarely using closeups when the characters are at their most vulnerable).

Whereas the classy milieu and talk about young lovers and cheating is both de rigueur and overly familiar, Jaoui and Bacri give their latest a clear contemporary dimension by exploring the impact of the web and social media. The film suggests that the internet has made everything public, whether we want to or not, and that with it have come new ways of becoming famous or infamous, as the case may be, with reputations made or destroyed overnight in ways that often feel more random than logical or merit-based. Castro’s TV show — never seen but frequently discussed — digs into the private lives of his famous guests but this feels positively antiquated when all people need nowadays is a phone and some 4G to stalk practically everyone on the planet. While often practical, the web’s big-brother nature can also aggravate certain tendencies or character faults, like Castro’s jealousy, which goes into overdrive when he can see on his taxi app that his girlfriend’s driver stopped somewhere for half an hour and she refuses to explain why. Helene, who comments she thinks it’s hilarious that Castro, who cheated on her throughout their marriage, is suddenly jealous himself, exposes how we tend to hold everyone else to much higher standards than ourselves.

The film’s last major theme is the opposition between cynicism and idealism, represented by Castro and Helene, respectively, with the latter desperately trying to get Nathalie and her ex-husband to book an Afghan refugee on the show whose story is a lot more important than the private shenanigans of France’s rich and famous. Caught in between these extremes is Nina, who, in one of the film’s typically off-handed insights into humanity, suggests that cynics, though they may be harder to put up with and don’t necessarily contribute all that much to society, are at least much less likely to disappoint than idealists, who will have to live up to their own professed beliefs 24/7 in order for them to stay credible.  

Compared to C’est la vie, Place Publique is less an out-and-out comedy. But for those who know Jaoui’s previous work as a writer-director (The Taste of Others, Under the Rainbow) the film’s mix of honest drama and lighter moments should be very familiar. Not all the characters are lovable or funny but at least they are all recognizably human, a testament to not only Jaoui and Bacri’s writing skills but also a cast that’s in top shape, right down to the smallest role. Huggable bear Frederic Pierrot, for example, leaves quite the impression as a former object of desire of Helene’s, though he only has a handful of lines.

The film’s cinematography, production design and costumes all underline the material wealth of the characters, which will, however, be of little consolation when they are faced with their shortcomings.   

Production companies: SBS Films, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Agnes Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Lea Drucker, Kevin Azais, Nina Meurisse, Sarah Suco, Helena Noguerra, Miglen Mirtchev, Olivier Broche, Yvick Letexier, Frederic Pierrot, Eric Viellard
Director: Agnes Jaoui
Screenplay: Agnes Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Bacri
Producers: Said Ben Said, Michel Merkt
Director of photography: Yves Angelo
Production designer: Denis Hager
Costume designer: Charlotte Davod
Editor: Annette Dutertre
Music: Fernando Fiszbein
Sales: Le Pacte
In French, Polish

No rating, 98 minutes