‘The Roommates Party’ (‘Le Grand partage’): Film Review
Alexandre Leclere directs an all-star cast in this socially themed holiday comedy.
Trying to give a social bent to yet another broad farce about wealthy Parisians with far too much time on their hands, writer-director Alexandra Leclere's The Roommates Party (Le Grand partage) uses the very relevant issue of housing inequality to try and draw laughs out of a dire national situation. The problem is that the laughs are few and far between, while this grating portrait of several neighbors forced to take in poor, mostly immigrant boarders during a severe winter storm winds up wasting its subject matter on undercooked comic hijinks and eye-rolling marital woes.
Set for release in France on Dec. 23 and clearly meant to be a holiday movie for the whole family, this Wild Bunch release may earn good graces from local audiences who enjoyed last year's breakout comic hit, Serial (Bad) Weddings: Both films deal with homegrown prejudices by showing how bigoted Frenchies can learn to stop worrying and love people with darker skin tones. But both pics also fail miserably by trafficking in lame stereotypes whether white or black, leaving this Party to play out predominantly in Francophone territories, with additional fetes in Western Europe.
It's one of the worst winters on record, and an urgent government decree has obliged homeowners with ample floor space to give up a spare room or two to those without adequate lodging. The various residents of a fancy if slightly rundown apartment building on Paris's Left Bank are thus forced to accommodate a slew of new roommates whether they like it or not, upending their already chaotic households and causing the neighborly friction to boil over into a slew of petty domestic squabbles.
Leclere's script mostly focuses on two couples: the strictly conservative Pierre (Didier Bourbon) and Christine (Karin Viard), who sleep in separate bedrooms and probably haven't had sex since the Chirac administration; and the certified Bobos Gregory (Michel Vuillermoz) and Beatrice (Valerie Bonneton), who can't decide whether they want to help those in need or just pretend to care without actually doing anything. They’re joined by their Front National-supporting concierge (Josiane Balasko) and a hapless retiree (Patrick Chesnais) looking for a few young male bodies to warm up to.
If these already sound like tedious clichés, just wait until all the lodgers arrive. They include an African mother who doesn't speak a word of French; a Romanian man who turns out to be a thief; a bunch of homeless winos who smell bad but know how to have a good time; and perhaps the only partially developed character, a working black mom (Priscilla Adade) who’s only given about three minutes of screen time.
Ultimately, the penniless tenants serve no other narrative purpose than to help the rich white people get their mojo back, and the movie is embarrassingly vague when it comes to the fate of those in need. At one point, the building is filled to the brim with African refugees, with the full-time residents lapping up the good vibes and exotic color. But as soon as spring arrives, most of the squatters are gone. Where they actually went is anyone’s guess — maybe back on the street? — but hey, at least Pierre, Christine, Gregory and Beatrice are all getting laid now.
It’s rather pitiful how Leclere exploits social issues for such mediocre comic fodder, and although the seasoned cast is lively enough, their performances are straight out of a vaudeville sketch whose volume is turned up way too many decibels. (The otherwise talented Bonneton is particularly unbearable here, shouting almost every line of dialogue.)
It’s not that all films need to be politically correct, but when you’re tackling a major issue like this, at least pretend you care. As much as popular comedies like Roommates and Weddings try to venture into delicate territory — racial discrimination in France is an unspoken but persistent problem — they all too often retreat to the safe side, comforting audiences in opinions they’re meant to condemn.
Production companies: Pan-Europeenne, Wild Bunch, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Karin Viard, Didier Bourdon, Valerie Bonneton, Michel Vuillermoz, Josiane Balasko, Patrick Chesnais
Director-screenwriter: Alexandra Leclere
Producer: Philippe Godeau
Director of photography: Jean-Marc Fabre
Production designer: Anne Seibel
Costume designers: Jacqueline Bouchard, Eric Perron
Editors: Philippe Bourgueil, Andrea Sedlackova, Ronan Tronchot
Composer: Philippe Rombi
Casting director: Isabelle Ungaro
Sales agent: Other Angle Pictures
Not rated, 102 minutes