THE FAMILY WAY
Happiness Never Comes Alone Dead Man Down
(Un Bonheur n’arrive jamais seul) (M) ★★★ Limited release
✩ HEN Hollywood invented the screwball comedy in the 1930s, the icons of French cinema were Jean Renoir and Rene Clair, models of refinement and sophistication. Then, in the hands of Jacques Becker and the inimitable Jacques Tati, French cinema evolved a fresh comic style, a mixture of romance and farce overlaid with a certain Gallic melancholy. But that, too, has changed. French mainstream comedy today seems closer than ever to Hollywood norms and conventions. Following hard on Noemie Lvovsky’s Camille Rewinds, an unacknowledged remake of Peggy Sue Got Married (reviewed recently by my colleague David Stratton), comes James Huth’s boisterous romantic romp, Happiness Never Comes Alone, with its strong reminders of Hollywood screwball classics.
Like the best films of the screwball era, Huth’s film is marked by much fast talk and relentless energy. It’s the story of a seemingly incompatible couple who are thrown together by chance and fall in love against the odds. Hollywood’s best-known version, It Happened One Night, starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. It’s my favourite comedy of the 30s. Happiness Never Comes Alone stars Gad Elmaleh as Sacha, an irresponsible young jazz musician and compulsive womaniser, and Sophie Marceau as Charlotte, a professional career woman with two ex-husbands and three young children. Can they make a go of it? Should they even try?
If this were a Hollywood film, reviewers would be solemnly lamenting its cliched plot and predictable outcomes. But the French, with their reputation for subtlety, savoir faire and superior discernment in matters of the heart, can make even the most dog-eared plot seemed fresh and captivating. It may have something to do with the language. I last saw Elmaleh in Pierre Salvadori’s delightful 2006 comedy Priceless, in which he played a gullible hotel bartender who falls for Audrey Tautou’s gold-digging seductress. It was another story of incompatible lovers, and Elmaleh proved himself adept at playing the charming but deluded fall guy. As Sacha he has vague ambitions of writing a Broadway musical. We know he has musical talent; he might one day be a respected composer if he weren’t frittering away his life in idle pleasures. When he meets Charlotte — at a preview screening of a TV commercial for which he has written the music (all five seconds of it) — he manages to offend the boss of the client firm (Francois Berleand), a rich tycoon who turns out to be one of Charlotte’s former husbands. Serious complications.
The comedy has an odd knockabout flavour, with Charlotte regularly falling over or bumping into things; windows break and washbasins crash to the floor for no apparent reason. Sacha inhabits a grotty room in Montmartre plastered with old Hollywood movie posters while Charlotte swans about in an ultra-trendy apartment where we notice, amid all the contemporary artwork, posters for Casablanca and West Side Story already glimpsed in Sacha’s quarters. There must be hope for these two.
But the real bar to their happiness is Sacha’s phobia of children. For Sacha, kids are in the same class as snakes and spiders (to use his own words). And when a small intruder interrupts a love-making session with Charlotte the game looks to be over. But as we know from many a Hollywood comedy, guys with an aversion to kids are invariably won over by juvenile charms. Perhaps the best comparison here is with Bachelor Mother, Garson Kanin’s 1939 screwball classic in which Ginger Rogers plays the reluctant mum, bravely shouldering maternal responsibilities while David Niven spurns the prospect of a ready-made family.
For all its gloss and sparkle, Happiness Never Comes Alone is a thoroughly conventional entertainment, much of it strained and improbable. But there is plenty to enjoy, not least the references to old Hollywood musicals and a soundtrack sprinkled with more 20thcentury pop standards than a Woody Allen movie. I’m not sure that Elmaleh is really playing the piano in those jazz scenes but the effect is convincing. The children are an engaging lot, the performances never less than likable and Paris looks charming, even in the rain. In the end, do we really want Sacha to leave Paris and make the big time on Broadway? We can’t be sure, and neither can Sacha. In a country that has recently legalised same-sex marriage, Huth’s film proves to be a resounding celebration of traditional family values — a coincidence of no significance whatever, though I thought I’d mention it. DEAD Man Down is a Hollywood thriller from Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, whose previous film was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: a sleek combination of detective story, neo-noir crime thriller and old-fashioned revenge drama, relentlessly gripping and beautifully made, and a minor masterpiece of its kind. I wish I could say as much for Dead Man Down — another revenge drama, or rather, two revenge dramas rolled into one. Both films include graphic scenes of violence, murder, torture and degradation, and both gain something from the presence of Noomi Rapace, who played the punk computer hacker in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But whereas The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo benefited from novelist Stieg Larsson’s superb gifts as a storyteller, Dead Man Down relies on a cluttered screenplay by JH Wyman, in which shocking set-pieces and absurd plot twists prove no substitute for a satisfying narrative.
In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Oplev proved himself a master of atmosphere as well as plot. His film was steeped in a mood of chilly Nordic gloom unmatched since the days of Ingmar Bergman’s romantic pessimism. In Dead Man Down atmosphere is about the only thing the film has going for it — with raindrenched streets, barren docksides, empty cemeteries and abandoned, rat-infested warehouses. And for a film supposedly charged with extreme emotion — hatred, suspicion and a lust for revenge — the performances feel curiously wooden. It’s hard to believe Colin Farrell, who plays the anti-hero Victor, is the same actor we saw in Martin McDonagh’s enigmatic black comedy In Bruges.
Victor’s background is Hungarian but he speaks American English without a trace of his old accent and is rather proud of it. He also speaks without a trace of animation. But, then, he lives with the burden of two tragic memories: the death of his young daughter in an accident and the murder of his wife, who has been killed to prevent her giving evidence at a criminal trial.
Victor pins the blame for both deaths on a ruthless gang boss, Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard), and has infiltrated Hoyt’s empire with a view to exacting revenge. While he awaits his opportunity he begins seeing Beatrice (Rapace), a mysterious woman who lives in a neighbouring apartment. Beatrice, a professional beautician, has been disfigured in a road accident and wants Victor to hunt down and kill the driver responsible. If he refuses, she will give police a video showing Victor killing another gangster, which she has secretly filmed through his apartment window. It hardly seems like the basis for a deep romantic attachment but in Dead Man Down we can’t be sure of anything.
Put like this, the story may sound intriguing. I could imagine Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck playing the roles in the heyday of Hollywood noir. And if Dead Man Down had confined itself to these few plot essentials it might have worked well as a suspense thriller. But the screenplay is overloaded with extraneous characters, all with personal vendettas to settle between rival mobs. And frankly it’s a muddle — at least until the final orgiastic shootout, with its ludicrous reminders of Skyfall and Django Unchained. I think Beatrice and Victor are the only two characters left standing in the end. Will romance flourish after all?
with Sophie Marceau, celebrates traditional values
Colin Farrell is the curiously wooden anti-hero in