I will always watch a French film starring Kristin Scott Thomas just to see how a director uses her. Scott Thomas, or KST as I call her, is given short shrift in English movies, where directors are incapable of grasping her range. Put her in a French movie and, suddenly, elle vivre! She is raw. She is passionate. She is complicated. You can never guess how her character will respond.
From the boss who seduces her more talented junior (female) colleague in CRIMES D’AMOUR to the kidnap victim with Stockholm Syndrome in CONTRE TOI to the ex-convict who committed a real crime of passion in IL Y A LONGTEMPS QUE JE T’AIME to the cheating wife in PARTIR, KST knocks it out of the park. Not only does she choose well but she does not sell herself short. I watch Kristin Scott Thomas movies the way I used to watch Robert de Niro flicks – fireworks are going to happen!
Interestingly, though, this year, KST has had an astounding English language role as the tough-talking, revenge bent, monumentally angry mother in ONLY GOD FORGIVES; she is the only reason to see that movie. In CHERCHEZ HORTENSE or SEARCHING FOR HORTENSE to give it its multiplex title, she starts strong but fades from view. Like DANS LA MAISON before it, in which she had a marginal role, it is a disappointment, though not exactly a bad movie.
Scott Thomas plays Iva, a highly-opinionated theatre director who wants her lead actor to love her. She trashes his last part but says he has talent. She says she won’t leave her husband but leaves the possibility of an affair open. She allows her lead actor to drop her in the middle of nowhere, not because she knows he will come back for her (he doesn’t) but he’ll respect her for it (he does).
A relative of Iva’s has un problem des papiers. She is of Balkan descent, in danger of being deported to Montenegro. Iva asks her husband, Damien (Jean-Pierre Bacri) to help. His father is a well-respected High Court judge who knows people who can rule on such things, in particular, Henri Hortense, the ‘great man’. When Damien lies about having said something to his father – they speak, but papa does not acknowledge that a request is being made, Iva’s family celebrate in the only way they can – the gift of oysters, the offer of a free hair cut for Damien’s son and, not for Damien’s benefit, sex in the toilet. (It is a comedy – sort of.) At the same time, Damien makes the acquaintance of Aurore (Isabelle Carre), a troubled thirty-something woman who admires Damien and his older chess-playing pals and wants to attend Damien’s class; he teaches men and women how to understand the Chinese way of doing business, as opposed to teaching them Chinese.
Iva has her affair, but director Pascal Bonitzer is more interested in Damien’s fixation on Aurore, the woman who loves books but appears to be in an abusive relationship. Damien eventually confesses that his father has made no such pledge to help. The family are insulted. Then Damien makes a discovery about Aurore.
As in the best French movies, CHERCHEZ HORTENSE is heavily populated with interesting incidental characters. Damien’s friend becomes suicidal. He has fallen in love with a woman but none of his other pals rush to stop him from doing something stupid as Damien does, taking his revolver from him. The next day, the old man is elated. Damien is a hero. I particularly enjoyed away the suicidal man explained away a letter he was writing to his doomed love as a quotation from Vladimir Nabokov’s PNIN. (‘You can check!’) As all Nabokov readers will know, PNIN is one of the least successful of his novels, next to ADA or ARDOR. The idea of someone finding inspiration from it is extremely unlikely and I suspect Bonitzer knows it. (It is a little émigré in-joke.)
The aborted suicide attempt ends with Damien arriving home late to an apartment bereft of his wife; proof finally of her infidelity. She then confesses. Damien orders her to leave in a way that visibly takes her aback; she expects him to fight for her. Scott Thomas captures Iva’s left-field shock really well, the loss of control that is genuinely alien to her.
The film builds to a gasp-making moment with an edgy scene involving papers knocked out of Damien’s hand, a confession and the presence of the police; the sense that Damien puts someone in real danger. A character tells Damien that they feel uneasy around the police; there is a street row brewing and then, so to speak, an explosion.)There are other moments when the characters lose their train of thought, as when Damien discovers that his father might be gay after watching the flirtatious way the old man interacts with a young Japanese waiter, describing a tea-flavoured ice cream named after Mount Fuji. Damien later gets drunk on sake and there is some sexual comedy of an obvious kind.
A theme of Orientalism runs through the movie. Damien explains how a man in China appeared to possess some inner peace that he envied. It was a look into the middle distance that got him. Damien’s expertise also opens doors, when he secures an unexpected meeting.
Another subplot involves Damien’s teenage son, Noe, been bullied and then having his first sleepover; he will only watch one episode of DOCTOR HOUSE at a friend’s house; he is growing up fast. Noe gave the bully his mother’s watch. Iva discovers the loss when she returns to pack her things. Damien explains; Noe feels betrayed. There is a real sense of life existing outside the narrative. Not everything is resolved; nor should it be.
I missed KST’s Iva. We do find out what happened to her, but she essentially disappears from the movie. She is a curtain raiser to the main narrative. SEARCHING FOR HORTENSE has its comic and dramatic moments and pleasing (yes, pleasing) shifts of tone. I just wished Kristin Scott Thomas had a bigger part to play.
Reviewed at Cineworld Haymarket, Central London, Friday 16 August (18:15 show).