At the New Zealand International Film Festival, David Moreau’s romantic comedy of mismatched intentions; and Ashgar Farhadi’s emotionally draining follow-up to A Separation.
These two French films are both set in the city of love, but present radically different perspectives on romance and relationships. In It Boy, director David Moreau successfully makes the transition from horror to romantic comedy, probing the comedic potential of romantic age gaps. Mismatched ages are nothing new in French cinema—it seems Gallic Casanovas have been wooing younger women since the days of the Lumière brothers. But It Boy reverses the gender roles: Alice is nearly forty, while Balthazar is a cheerful, goofy nineteen. They meet on a flight from Brazil to Paris, when Balthazar is fortuitously upgraded to business class. She leaves a flash drive on the plane, he finds it and, rather hopefully imagining a chance for romance, he makes contact. For Alice, Balthazar’s youthful crush presents an opportunity to shed the prim, unadventurous image that is holding her back in her job working for a fashion mag. A romance of mismatched intentions as well as ages ensues.
A lively script and strong lead performances elicit genuine laughter from the audience as the film unfolds in chic Parisian offices, bars, and fashion shoots. The first half of the film contains most of the laughs, while the conventional falling-out-of-love and briefly reflective part of the film reminds us about double standards. Alice’s ex-husband says as much of his relationship with a younger woman—“It’s different because I’m a man”—but the dynamics of the age gap are better expressed subtly by lead actors Efira and Niney: her self-consciousness, his instinctive deference. There is some concern earlier in the film about the future: “what will it be like when I am 50 and you are 31?” muses Alice. But ultimately, the film decides in favour of a feel good message: follow your heart and the future will work out fine.
That message is, unsurprisingly, not reflected in Ashgar Farhadi’s The Past, which is also set in Paris, but in something of a different universe from that of It Boy. This film takes place in the suburbs, principally in the suffocating atmosphere of an unhappy home. Ahmad has returned to Paris from Iran to complete his divorce from Marie, who now lives with her new partner Samir in the former family home. This is kitchen sink drama that actually takes place at the kitchen sink. When Ahmad and Samir first meet, Ahmad is clearing a blocked pipe. Samir awkwardly takes over the job, in a foretaste of the tension that develops between the two men.
The past informs every interaction between these characters, and their personal histories are slowly revealed through the course of the film. The effect is harrowing, and the emotional impact of broken families, depression, and conflicted loyalties on each of the characters is forcefully conveyed. Despite formalising their divorce, there is a residual chemistry between Ahmad and Marie, which in turn creates tension between Marie and Samir.
The portrayal of the children involved in this unhappy situation is particularly affecting. Marie’s teenage daughter Lucie feels unable to live in her own home, as Samir and his son Fouad seem to displace her, and she is racked by guilt over her treatment of Samir’s wife in the early stages of his mother’s affair with Samir. It’s rather a tangled web you see, as Samir’s wife is now in a coma. Understandably, Fouad is an angry little boy. Farhadi has coaxed a striking performance from a child actor here; it is hard to watch at times.
The unrelenting tension and spare, unadorned quality of this film make for an emotionally draining 130 minutes, but in doing so it dramatises an idea that is (as one might expect given their different genres) the antithesis of It Boy: enthusiasm for a new romance is no guarantee that it will “climb clear of its wrong beginnings.”