'The Student and Mister Henri' ('L'Etudiante et Monsieur Henri'): Film Review

Mister Henri Still - H 2015
Coutesy of Studio Canal
Grumpy old man comedy fails screen test.

Writer-director Ivan Calberac directs veteran Claude Brasseur in plodding adaptation of stage comedy hit.

An elderly curmudgeon lets out a room in his large apartment rent-free to a young student -- on condition that she does everything in her power to ruin his son’s marriage. If that sounds like the premise for a farce, it's because that is precisely how this misconceived movie started out in real life. Ivan Calberac directs this self-scripted adaptation of his own stage comedy, a hit three years ago on the Paris boulevard scene but, in film form, likely to garner more raspberries than bouquets.

The modest publicity allotted to The Student and Mister Henri (L'Etudiante et Monsieur Henri) -- Calberac’s third outing since he won a Cesar (the Gallic Oscar equivalent) for his debut feature Irene, in 2002 -- suggests a lack of confidence on the part of the French distributors, and world audiences are unlikely to be more impressed.

Claude Brasseur, as the eponymous Henri, heads a cast that struggles to breathe life into this succession of stock situations. Newcomer Noemie Schmidt plays Constance, a student in Paris who is unsure of herself but desperate to escape the grip of her tyrannical father who runs a market stall in Orleans. Strapped for cash, she accepts Henri’s offer of a free room if she can drive a wedge between his son Paul (Guillaume de Tonquedec) and his airhead daughter-in-law Valerie (Frederique Bel). Constance deploys her seductive skills and soon enough the forty-something Paul is falling for her, dressing in cool leather jackets, clubbing and sending text messages in (misspelt) suburban slang.

Needless to say, the crusty old Henri, hitherto unrelentingly misanthropic and graceless, also sees his defenses crumble before the sweet-natured Constance. The film’s message emerges early, laid on with a trowel. Henri is a former accountant, plagued with regrets about what might have been. You only live once, he sagely informs his young tenant. Pursue your dream. Seize the day. And the film plods its way to a predictable ending, bereft of much in the way of sparkle or wit.

Of the actors, most of the heavy lifting is done by de Tonquedec, the star of a successful long-running television comedy series, as well as of the 2012 stagy comic hit, What's in a Name?. Paul has succeeded his father in the family business (popular preconceptions about accountancy being a synonym for dullness are never for a moment challenged), and de Tonquedec brings the necessary minimum of credibility to his portrayal of a rather staid middle-aged man attracted to a woman half his age. A late scene in which he exchanges barbs with Henri provides one of the rare moments when the acting catches fire.

The performances by Schmidt and Bel are adequate, but Brasseur, who played opposite the likes of Jean Gabin back in the 1950s, is unable to get much change out of the stereotyped role of the old grump.

Parisian comedie de boulevard tends to the safe, consensual and undemanding, and too many of these qualities, including comic dialogue which is largely unfunny, have carried over in Calberac’s transposition of the story from stage to screen.

The direction is otherwise proficient and there are inevitably moments when the situation comedy forces a smile. But the title invites comparison with another movie in which the central relationship is one between a young woman and a much older man, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (1996), starring Michel Serrault, and though it may be unfair to set one Monsieur against the other, there really is no contest.

Production companies: Mandarin Cinema, Studiocanal
Cast: Claude Brasseur, Guillaume de Tonquedec, Noemie Schmidt, Frederique Bel, Thomas Soliveres
Director: Ivan Calberac
Screenwriter: Ivan Calberac, based on his play L’Étudiante et Monsieur Henri
Producers: Isabelle Grellat, Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer
Director of photography: Vincent Mathias
Editor: Veronique Parnet
Production designer: Sylvie Olive
Composer: Laurent Aknin
Costume designer: Claire Lacaze
International sales : Studiocanal

No rating, 98 minutes