Superstar: Venice Review

A French Everyman fights off inexplicable overnight celebrity in an enjoyably absurd tale.  

Director Xavier Giannoli casts Kad Merad in his tale about a man who wakes up to find himself inexplicably famous.

Just a little more over-the-top than TV’s instant, 15-minute celebrities, the enjoyable Superstar fantasizes about a normal face in the crowd who, for no apparent reason, suddenly becomes the focus of collective hysteria.

This well-made, finely acted French comedy, which rolls on oiled tracks for its first 45 minutes of madness, is actually more curious than funny and never spreads its wings beyond its initial premise. The native popularity of star Kad Merad should assure interest in French-lingo territories, while its Venice competition slot and Toronto airing will kick off festival dates.

Director Xavier Giannoli (In the Beginning) takes seriously a familiar theme last aired as straight comedy in Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love, where an average Joe played by Roberto Benigni wakes up to find himself inexplicably famous. Martin Kazinsky (Merad), a balding, middle-aged bachelor who works in a recycling plant, one day wakes up to find people smiling at him on the subway, snapping his picture on their cell phones and asking for autographs. A crowd starts following him for absolutely no reason. By the time he gets to work he’s thoroughly spooked. Their photos of poor Martin shoot through the Internet in real time and within hours he’s deluged with calls from TV stations. Merad’s baggy eyes and skin rash worsen as his bewilderment increases: like the viewer, he has no idea what’s going on and he certainly doesn’t want to be famous.

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Exploiting his naiveté, alert TV journalist Fleur (Cecile de France, who co-starred with Gerard Depardieu in Giannoli’s romantic The Singer) shelters him from the mob chasing him and cajoles him onto her show. In his innocence he thinks he’ll find out why people are hounding him and make them stop; but the intentions of Fleur’s cynical lover and TV producer (an aptly cold-blooded Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) are quite the opposite. In the event, the show’s slick host Alban (French actor Ben) gets into an irrelevant tussle with a rapper-guest and the studio audience ferociously turns on him, forgetting Martin. This beautifully written scene, teetering between conflicting motivations, media spoof and sad reality, is where the film plateaus out.

The pacy rhythm continues, as Martin is pulled here and there by those anxious to cash in on his popularity. His awkward feelings for Fleur, who is given a good rounding-out by the reliable de France, add to his misery. Inevitably, the tide turns and the masses of common people who loved and identified with him turn nasty for no reason.

The film ends on a surprisingly trite, upbeat note. And to think that the opening scene, a flash-forward to Martin’s being hustled through a hotel kitchen and out a back door, followed by a hair-raising high-speed car chase through a Parisian underpass pursued by an implacable pack of paparazzi on motorcycles, foreshadowed a meatier finale. By raising the ghost of Princess Diana’s tragedy, Giannoli puts more chips on the table than he’s able to see through to the end of the game.

As the ordinary, unambitious, average-looking bloke caught up in human folly, Kad Merad is simply impeccable. The versatile actor, who shot to real-life fame in Dany Boon’s top-grossing French comedy Welcome to the Sticks, is hypnotically non-descript, exactly as needed to stand out in an impressive sea of ordinary-looking extras. A handful of honest and sincere people do exist in the film for a quick reality check – notably, the factory workers who have slight learning disabilities, and a level-headed cross-dressing performance artist, played by Alberto Sorbelli as himself.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (competing), Aug. 30, 2012

Production companies: Rectangle Productions, Scope Pictures in association with Wild Bunch Studio 37, France 3 Pictures

Cast: Kad Merad, Cecile de France, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Ben, Alberto Sorbelli, Garba Tounkara, Pierre Diot, Herve Pierre, Mathias Camberlein

Director: Xavier Giannoli

Screenwriters: Xavier Giannoli, Marcia Romano, based on a novel by Serge Joncour

Producer: Edouard Weil

Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne

Production designer: Francois-Renaud Labarthe

Editor: Calia Lafite Dupont

Music: Mathieu Blanc-Francard

Sales Agent: Wild Bunch

No rating, 112 minutes