It’s one of the semi-myths pedalled by both pro and anti globalisation camps that we will end up with a globalised, homogeneous culture where everybody reads and sees and listens to the same things everywhere, probably at the same time.
Granted, the race to the bottom allows the whole world to experience the bland stodge of Justin Bieber, the state propaganda of CSI Miami, New York and Poughkeepsie, and the clunking prose of Dan Brown and EL James but that doesn’t mean that culture has turned into something interchangeable. In fact, there are still films, music and literature which are pretty much known only within a local area or within a country. You can see this in the Scottish, mainly Glaswegian, music scene and also here in France where it is incredibly strong.
The French government has long supported cultural activities, not least because it supports and reinforces France’s own self image as fiercely intellectual and also the image that France projects to the world.
L’Écume des Jours, which means something like The Froth or the Foam of the Days, is a classic French novel which I had never heard of until it was recommended to me by my French teacher. This is one of her favourite books and, from having spoken to a few more French people, I find that it’s a hugely popular book here. And yet, I had never heard of it, which might not be the greatest measure of a work’s fame. OK, so I’m not the most widely read person in the world but I’ve read more than most and I think I have a pretty good grasp of world culture and literature. Obviously not in this case.
The book is a wild, bleak, fantastical and surreal, or perhaps more dadaist tale of the doomed love between Colin and Chloé. Running through the book are strong critiques of the cult of the intellectual personality, crushingly repetitive and exploitative waged work to support the state’s continued oppression of the population and a damning indictment of the church. All popular topics for the author, Boris Vian.
It seemed as though there were a general sense of unease among the book’s many fans about another effort to make a film of this book. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, efforts to film books, especially ones which demand your concentration and fill your imagination, are almost doomed to be dissatisfying to those who love the book since the book will never match their own mental images. But these points are given. They have to be accepted since they cannot be avoided, except by not making the film and that’s not the sort of thing that filmmakers are readily able to do.
Michel Gondry directed this current effort at filming the unfilmable. There have been efforts to film the book before and it has even been made into an opera. Gondry will perhaps be better known outside of France for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His experience in directing pop videos is perhaps more obvious in this film that in his others, as the various scenes are more set pieces and quite individual in style. As such, they don’t always seem to fit together and at times, it felt like watching MTV in the 80s, with Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer video and Ultravox’s Vienna videos coming readily mind.
A quick potted plot, without spoilers: The story focuses on Colin’s [played by Romain Duris] free, easy and bourgeois life. He has pots of money and lives as he pleases, eating the weird dishes prepared by his chef and friend Nicolas [Omar Sy]. Colin meets Chloé [Audrey Tautou] and they quickly fall in love and get married. His friend Chick [Gad Elmaleh] is in love with Alise [Aïssa Maïga] and Colin gives them lots of money so that they too can marry. Whilst on honeymoon, Chloé falls ill and a waterlily begins to grow in her lung. The cost of the treatment eats Colin’s fortune and so he must find work for the first time in his life.
The other main threads of the film, such as Chick’s obsession with collecting the works of the cult philosopher Jean Sol Partre [yes, a barely concealed joke on Sartre, who the actor obviously resembles], the behaviour of the priest and his familiars and the representations of brutal, slogging labour are almost neglected for the sake of the attempts to represent the fantastical nature of Colin’s wild life and his subsequent life with Chloé.
So does it work? No, not really. It’s all rather chaotic and doesn’t hang together, with too many different styles making the film disjointed and chaotic. Some of the sets, particularly Colin’s deteriorating apartment, are magnificent and some of the set pieces are excellent but the film is incoherent as a whole and lacks emotional depth or structure. On the plus side, I got to explore French culture a bit more.
As a final aside, another of Vian’s works, the controversial “J’irai cracher sur vos tombes” ["I will spit on your graves"] was also filmed and Vian was less than happy. In fact he had been less than happy with the adaptation and had been fighting and arguing with the producers and director throughout filming. Minutes into the premiere, Vian stood up and started shouting abuse at the film whereupon he collapsed and then died on the way to hospital. I doubt this film would have killed him or had him turning is his grave. He’d probably be just sighing and looking disappointed.