See How They Run (Embrassez Qui Vous Voudrez)
“See How They Run,” one of the features in the Museum of Fine Arts’ French Film Festival, is a comedy that is too real to be funny, and too real not to be.
A group of Parisians are thrown together in a seaside resort town. Well-to-do Elisabeth, traveling with her friend Julie, a single mother who also happens to be one of Elisabeth’s husband’s ex-lovers, along with another couple, Jerome and Vero, who are suffering from financial and emotional losses but are too embarrassed to admit it, and their teenaged son, Loic. Their paths cross with Maxime, a married playboy, and with another couple, Jean-Pierre and Lulu. Jean-Pierre is jealous and possessive to a fault and has convinced himself that his faithful wife is really a nymphomaniac. Thanks to director and screenwriter Michel Blanc’s tight choreography, the viewer never gets lost keeping track of the various relationships and liaisons in this fast-paced film that derives much of its comedy from mistaken identities and the characters’ stubborn refusal to face reality.
What sets the film into motion is that poor Elisabeth needs a break. Poor Elisabeth, whose biggest worry is that her new Prada bag clashes with her shoes, is so busy trying to be busy, that she doesn’t see what is right in front of her. She doesn’t notice that her friend Vero cannot afford new clothes; instead she points out to Vero how “lucky” she is to still fit into her green dress for five straight years. She pretends not to notice that her bored and aloof husband, Bernard, is sleeping around. (In fact, he begs out of the vacation to work, and spends his nights with his assistant and lover, a hermaphrodite only slightly older than his teenaged daughter.)
Even at her most insensitive, Elisabeth is never malicious, thanks to a balanced portrayal by well-known actress Charlotte Rampling. Elisabeth reaches the height of her well-intentioned tactlessness during an exchange with Jerome at a picnic on the beach. Facing away from him, she tells him, “Our lives don’t look like our dreams.” Luckily his leap from the cliff isn’t fatal.
By returning to the resort town of her childhood, Elisabeth has the opportunity to reacquaint herself with the 14-year-old girl she used to be. The girl who had hopes, dreams, and happiness. The girl looking forward; the girl to whom everything was possible, before life, love, and obligations mucked it all up. We were all once that person. The person with ideals untested and unprovoked. Raw and innocent, able to be happy because we had not yet discovered unhappiness. And then, somewhere along the way, real life intervenes. We grow and mature, we learn about compromises, choices, and consequences. The endless summer of our youth gives way to the changing seasons of adulthood. And sometimes, as with Elisabeth, it is easy to forget that person who used to laugh and giggle. Sometimes we lose our way, lose our center. Elisabeth, who no longer knew who she was, became blind to herself and blind to life around her.
Blanc, who also plays the role of Jean-Pierre, adapted the script from Joseph Connolly’s novel, Summer Things. In transforming the characters from page to screen, Blanc took pains to make sure that his characters had depth. In that regard, he succeeded. The characters are all likeable because they are human and flawed. There is a reason that Jerome and Vero are in the predicament they are in, and when that becomes apparent to the viewer, they move from simply being an annoying, bickering couple to being two very human people who fight because they cannot talk to each other. And one cannot help but fall in love with Julie, who spends the entire movie going down yet another dead-end in her desire for love. She is a sparkling counterpoint to Elisabeth. There is a passion for life simmering beneath the surface of all of Blanc’s characters who are vividly and humanly brought to the screen thanks to casting and acting that are both superb.
The only flaw in the movie is Elisabeth and Bernard’s daughter, Emilie and her tryst with Bernard’s employee, Kevin. I suppose the lesson is that unhappy adults have miserable children, but it is the viewer who suffers as she wreaks havoc on the men that cross her path in her attempt to get back against her parents. But there is nothing in here that we can sympathize with. Emilie is just a spoiled brat and Kevin is stupid enough to throw his career and self-respect away for her. There is no character development and, more importantly, we just don’t care. Blanc would have been better suited dropping this particular story line.
But other than this detour, the movie deals with the joy of rediscovering one’s passion and integrating it into one’s current life in a delightful and refreshing way. This is a story of friendships and self-discovery. Despite the number and assortment of sexual liaisons, real and imaginary, the message is that lovers and spouses aren’t as important as good friends, although sometimes the distinction between the two can be a bit blurry. It is a story about making connections with others in order to make a connection with ourselves. It is also about having the courage to break connections.
The movie places a great deal of emphasis on happiness — the pursuit of and the lack of. No, no one said life is supposed to be happy, but sometimes, it is nice to believe that it is possible. Towards the end of the movie, Lulu asks Elisabeth about being happy, and Elisabeth replies, “I firmly intend to be.” She makes it seem not only possible, but a more worthwhile goal than the quest for the perfect Prada bag.
[The 9th Annual Boston French Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts runs from July 8 – 25 and features 22 films, all Boston premiers. “See How They Run” is playing July 10, 15, &18.]