Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: French comedy goes all Apatow

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Dominic Corry talks to two French movie makers taking inspiration from Judd Apatow.
Max Boublil and Alain Chabat star in The Brats.
Max Boublil and Alain Chabat star in The Brats.

During my oft-referenced French film junket trip to Paris late last year, I noticed a curious trend amongst the 44 subjects I interviewed.

Many of them (screen legend Catherine Deneuve included) professed an affection for the works of Judd Apatow. I shouldn't have been surprised really - Apatow's films, unlike many mainstream offerings, are populated by unvarnished characters whose flaws make them more interesting. There's a frankness to his style that could very much be described as European.

Anyway, the new French comedy The Brats is the closest thing to a Judd Apatow-style French movie I've ever seen.

It's about a young man named Thomas (rising French comedy star Max Boubil) whose relationship with the radiant Lola (Mélanie Benier) suffers when he starts bonding with her mid-life crisis-suffering father Gilbert (Alain Chabat).

When Gilbert leaves his wife and moves in with Thomas, the situation escalates and eventually Iggy Pop becomes involved.

I found it interesting how certain clichéd French portrayals of comedic gender roles felt so closely aligned with an Apatow-influenced style. Which is to say, both forms feature shockingly behaved males being tolerated by women who deserve better. It makes for a pretty hilarious movie.

While I was in Paris, I spoke to The Brats co-writer/director Anthony Marciano and co-writer/star Max Boubil.

Marciano began by explaining that he and Boubil shared the same inspiration for making the film:

"We're both 30 years old, and we were both wondering if the maturity we had in our heads is gonna be the same when we'll be fifty. That's where it began."

"It's the main question of the movie," chimes in Boubil. "And the answer is yes."

So are they saying that men never grow out of their immaturities?

"Some types of guys," says Marciano. "Our type of guys. But I think there are some other types who are very mature."

"But they dream of immaturity," adds Boubil. "We saw that when we screened the movie, people came to us who were 50 years old, saying 'This movie talks about me, I wanna quit everything, I wanna quit my wife and my stupid job.' It rings a bell for a lot of people. We are all teenagers."

Marciano: "There were grandparents; parents; children; everybody was coming for a different reason. The children laughed at the guy smoking joints; the parents laughed at Gilbert's breakdown. It was very broad in terms of audience."

The pair wrote the screenplay together, and cite old you-know-you as one of the film's many sources of inspiration:

"A lot of Judd Apatow obviously," says Marciano. "And Woody Allen is also a great reference in terms of realistic characters and dialogue and stuff like that. And then obviously a lot of American comedies that are very politically incorrect like American Pie."

"And more recently We're The Millers," offers Boubil.

Marciano: "I love Judd Apatow movies but they have a problem with structure. There's always a point when you're letting the story go."

The Brats explores the consequences of not having the talent to back up a creative inclination. Now that the film has been such a success, these two collaborators surely have no such concerns.

"No, we do!" says Marciano. "Because we're asking ourselves the same questions about the next film and everything we do. Although it's a very fun job, the hardest part is be sure whether or not it's good. After a success it's even harder, because when you show your script to someone they'll automatically say it's perfect. So now we really have the doubt. Are they saying it's perfect just because it has our name on it? It's still hard to figure out whether we have good stuff in our hands or not."

Through various plot contrivances involving Thomas aspirations as a songwriter, Iggy Pop shows up in the film, playing himself. Did the script always feature the legendary performer?

"Yes from very early on," Marciano tells me."He was the first artist we asked. It was kind of a struggle to get in touch with him, but once we did, he read the script and immediately said yes. There was an earlier version where he sang Thomas's [terrible] song on stage, and that was the only thing he said he wouldn't do."

Both men relished the chance to work with Pop.

"It was crazy to have this guy on the set asking me what to do in the next scene, where he's playing himself!" admits Marciano.

"He was a wise man," adds Boubil. "With no shirt."

Chabat was another participant they targeted early.

"We had him in mind from the beginning. He's famous for his comedy and it's very close to the comedy we like. Every time you see him in a movie, you feel like you know this guy. When I first met him I thought he was my Uncle or that we'd known each other for twenty years. This is what he represents to the French audience, and this is why we wanted him. He's the most humble person you ever met, saying yes to everything and never questioning your choices and also when he plays the part, he plays it like you wouldn't expect and it's better. He's a great great guy."

I ask Boubil if he got to improvise with Chabat during filming.

"A lot was very scripted, but sometimes he let us improvise a little bit. But not too much to destroy the framework of the script."

Marciano: "When there's comedy just between the two of them, for example when they eat the pizza together, we have a few key points for the beginning and end of the screen, and in the middle I let them try and do something else. If there's something good improvised on the set we used it.

Sandrine Kiberlain plays Chabat's long-suffering, flower-child wife. It's a role somewhat in contrast to most of the acclaimed actress' previous work.

"This is what was interesting," says Marciano. "To take someone with a strict image and to make her talk about masturbation and stuff, this is what was funny to us."

I finish up by asking the pair if they're keen to collaborate on another movie.

"No!" says Boubil. "We're done!"

But Marciano corrects him: "We're writing something else together. It's another comedy. It's in the same mood but it's more of an action comedy."

I offer up a final observation that there haven't been many French action comedies.

"Maybe there's a reason for that which we will discover making it." deadpans Boubil.

The Brats is in New Zealand cinemas now.

* Gonna go see The Brats? Comment below!

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