December 2, 2008
Whatever You Say
Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½
When I interviewed actor/director Guillaume Canet shortly before the American theatrical release of his Tell No One (a movie that has gone on to become America's most successful foreign-language release of the past year; out on DVD next March), I asked him why we had never been able to see his earlier and first full-length film Mon Idole. Canet seemed surprised that his film was not available here, but Tell No One's enormous American success may have remedied that. Better late than never, for -- even in a mediocre DVD transfer and bearing the undistinguished "international" title of Whatever You Say -- it was worth the wait.
I first saw the film five years ago when it screened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Rendezvous with French Cinema Today. The response was decidedly mixed, but those of us who loved the movie, did so, I suspect, because of how engagingly it melded genres -- comedy, satire, thriller, character study, with even a bit of fantasy and animation tossed into the mix. Canet also uses American popular music on his sound tracks in a very personal, sometimes extremely odd manner. His choices -- none so unorthodox as the song he uses for the finale of Whatever You Say -- drive some people crazy. For me, his musical mix is often bizarrely dead-on in its combination of irony and emotion. A pair of stranger bedfellows you're not likely to encounter.
Because Whatever You Say, already five years old, chooses television for its point of satire, I expected to revisit the film and find it behind the times. Not at all. Canet, as director and co-writer (with his longtime friend -- and co-actor here -- Philippe Lefebvre) looked ahead to something cheesier and sleazier that France (or anywhere else) was doing back then. Today, his film seems still on the mark. The plot kicks in when a top TV executive (the "idol" of the film's original title) appears to take a liking to Canet's character and offers to help him with his career. From there things grow dizzier, creepier, funnier, often all at once -- right up to that ending that may have you exclaiming, "Why am I feeling all fuzzy and emotional" (it's the song, stupid) "about a guy who is beyond endurance?" Think about that -- and the film's final conversation -- while trying to put yourself into a French/philosophical frame of mind.
That this "idol" is played by the great François Berléand (The Comedy of Power, The Chorus and the Transporter movies), who also essayed the role of smart, kindly police inspector in Tell No One, is of enormous help to the film. The luscious Diane Kruger (Copying Beethoven, Troy, Joyeux Noel), as Berléand’s girlfriend, doesn't hurt, either. While Canet's filmmaking skills seem to have tripled between this film and Trust No One, clearly, the young actor/director already knew a lot about what he was doing. One major reason (other than option money) that Harlan Coben, the writer of the original novel Trust No One, gave over his work to Canet, was that Coben had seen and enjoyed Mon Idole (Whatever You Say). The movie is one big lark -- but being French, it’s a dark lark.
Posted by cphillips at December 2, 2008 2:35 PM