CongoramaReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/06/07 19:59:09
SCREENED AT THE 2007 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: There's an old joke about how America and Britain are separated by an ocean and a common language, and it's kind of amusing to see that it applies to French-speaking nations, too. "Congorama" is not just about finding funny ways in which Belgian, Québécois, and Congolese folks can misunderstand each other; rather, it uses the idea of multiple cultural perspectives to focus on a story that is really about individuals with different perspectives.One of those individuals is Michel Roy (Olivier Gourmet), a Belgian engineer with a genuine talent for streamlining production processes but a burning desire to create something new and useful. His employer has grown tired of humoring him, and he's plunged into an identity crisis when his invalid father Hervé (Jean-Pierre Cassel) informs him that he was not, in fact, born in Congo, but adopted from a small farm in Québéc. A trip to Montréal to sell his concept of an electric cable de-icer also offers the opportunity to search out his birth parents. All he has is the name Legrand, but the town he's told to search is filled with people named Legros. Frustrated, he gets a ride back to the city with Louis Legros (Paul Ahmarani), when...
Back up. Let's see what Louis has been doing for the past couple of weeks. The mineralogist has just found a new lode of diamonds and a new method of determining their quality, which he intends to take to the jewelers in Antwerp. A bout of malaria keeps him in Canada, where he looks for the legacy of his father, an inventor who disappeared years ago, taking plans for a viable electric car with him. We've seen some of the spots where his story intersected with Michel's, but some come as a surprise. After his story catches up with Michel's, we then jump forward a year, where we find that even though Michel didn't learn who his birth father is, he didn't return from Québéc empty-handed.
The structure and relationships Philippe Falardeau builds are clever in the extreme. Telling Michel's and Louis's stories separately might look like someone who has spent too much time studying film theory trying to impress us with how clever he is, but it accomplishes a couple things a strictly chronological telling wouldn't: We spend the first third of the movie not thinking about this film being anyone other than Michel's story, so while Falardeau is planting clues, we're taking notice but not seizing upon them as important. We're able to spend the second act piecing things together, initially being amused when Michel shows up in the background at various points, then alternating between delight and dread at how the previous segment ended. The last act is just bursting with deception, concealed anger, and vicious irony, right down to the last minute's revelation. It's a beautifully constructed script.
Falardeau's direction isn't quite so fine as his writing, but it's pretty good. There are a couple moments that seem to be in the movie because they seemed like a good idea but couldn't quite work - the scene where the car is crushed, for instance, works as a tangible link to the past being destroyed, but the filmmaker also seems to be playing it as if we're supposed to think that something else is being destroyed, too, even though we've seen that's not the case. Some of the domestic drama is a little overcooked, but that's more than made up for by how well he doles out just enough information to make each new piece something to savor.
He gives Olivier Gourmet a fantastic role. Michel is kind of a jerk, in ways large and small. He's a pain in the neck during his son's tennis lessons, and grouses about taking care of his father rather than placing him in an assisted-living facility, and what he does doing the time period that the film skips over is just rotten. But until we see that, we're kind of with him. Sure, he's a little pompous, but he's a bit put-upon, and his inventions aren't as useless as people seem to think. He feels like he's been living under his father's shadow forever, and then finds out he's adopted? That's a whole great mess of emotions, and Gourmet hits every one of them, even when we might not quite like what we see.
Ahmarani is just as good, reminding me a bit of a francophone William Fitchner, both in appearance and in how he has a seemingly placid front that splits open to reveal intensity and anger. Jean-Pierre Cassel's Hervé can't speak, but Cassel imbues him with personality and experience without doing much more than moving his head a bit. Claudia Tagbo and Arnaud Mouithys are charming as Michel's wife and son, and Guy Pion is believably unpleasant as his boss. Lorraine Pintal is note-perfect as Louis's mother.I don't know how much distribution this got; Québécois film just seems to vanish outside its borders. This one's a European co-production, so maybe it got seen by a few more people. It's a pretty darn well-constructed film, definitely worth a look for anyone who gets a chance.
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