Let's Talk About the Rain
aka Parlez-moi de la pluie, aka Let It Rain
Reviewed in October 2008
Director: Agnès Jaoui. Cast: Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agnès Jaoui, Jamel Debbouze, Pascale Arbillot, Florence Loiret, Frédéric Pierrot, Guillaume De Tonquedec, Mimouna Hadji, Jean-Claude Baudracco, Luc Palun. Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui.
Twitter Capsule: Passable, but feels too much like it's still in idea stages: "What if we based our story loosely on Ségolène..."

Photo © 2008 Les Films A4/France 2 Cinéma
A movie like Agnès Jaoui's Let's Talk About the Rain is ideally suited to film festivals, because one thing a festival does is knock you out of the narrow context of how good or novel or satisfying any particular movie is and force you instead to contemplate how many species of film are out there in the world, and how many types of audiences they're trying to satisfy. As an evening's entertainment, I can't get too worked up on behalf of Let's Talk About the Rain, and if I'd caught it at my local Landmark Theatre on my way home from my job, I might have felt some mild pique that the film isn't good enough to care about or bad enough to take issue with. It's one of those right-down-the-middle affairs that puts its script front and center, selling punchlines and double-takes under a thin gloss of continental sophistication, and reminding you at all points that this piece was constructed for your entertainment without a hook or a snap or a button of connection to the world we all inhabit. There is surely an audience for this sort of thing, as was certified by the appreciative, occasionally robust laughter in the Odeon West End during its red-carpet gala screening. It's not, ironically, an audience that expects a red carpet at a movie theater, which is probably why Let's Talk About the Rain has got nothing like the buzz of earlier Jaoui-Bacri collaborations like the Oscar-nominated The Taste of Others or the Cannes prizewinner Look at Me/Comme une image. This audience is, I'd guess, half made up of people who will see anything if it's French, whether it's a Francis Veber farce or a Claude Chabrol intrigue or another determined stab by Claude Lelouch, and half made up of people who went to Neil Simon plays in the 1970s and later switched to watching Mary Tyler Moore and Frasier, first on prime-time and then in syndication, and who wish that They would make more good, snappy, solid comedies for adults. If Let's Talk About the Rain were a store, it would be selling low-velocity cleverness, the promise of happy coupledom, and loose, above-the-shoulder close-ups of good-tempered and proficient actors. Part of the reason a film like this earns praise for its writing is that virtually every other formal element has been dialed back so concertedly, so as not to fuss too much with the question of art. It's art for people for whom "art" entails stories that speak right to what they enjoy, garnished occasionally with a peripheral, Olive Garden teaspoon of the international.

I am not arguing against the legitimacy of that audience or the achievements of Let's Talk About the Rain, though neither one sets a very high standard, and it's hard not to feel like the reason that we don't see better movies in greater numbers is because this medium-wattage sort of comedy is for many viewers an emblem of missions accomplished. I haven't seen The Taste of Others or Look at Me, both of which I've heard are much wittier and spryer than this picture is. Thus for the third or fourth time already in this festival, I can't help thinking that the film before me went into production before the filmmakers had really thought about why they were presenting this story, or about how far they could conceivably delve into it. Did Agnès Jaoui find something engaging in the case of Ségolène Royal, the runner-up candidate for the French presidency in 2007, and did she and husband-costar-cowriter Bacri endeavor to sculpt a script around a comparable figure, a tolerable though hardly a galvanizing politician who's out of love with her partner but unwilling to face it, and immersed in a political moment that discombobulates even the sharpest, most promising figures, to say nothing of the workaday consensus candidates? I have no good reason for guessing this, but I kept thinking of Ségolène as Jaoui's Agathe Villanova, a low-level politician plotting her way up, hung in through all the bumbling mishaps surrounding the talking-head documentary that Bacri's Michel and Jamel Debbouze's Karim are attempting to make about her.

I also kept wondering if Agathe was ever going to demonstrate the slightest fiber of political motive or thought, or whether the film would at least ironize her silence and blandness by underscoring that even if she were interviewed by a more competent twosome than Michel and Karim, it would be all the more obvious that she had nothing of substance to say. Let's Talk About the Rain is weirdly tentative about its characters, assigning them tics like absent-mindedness or wanness or a compulsion to control, instead of carving actual personalities for them. Of course it's a risk in a story about a comically forestalled interview that we'll never get close to the character we're trying to meet, but Jaoui and her collaborators don't push themselves very far at using their comedy plot as an inroad into character or a fresh comment about modern media. We see five or six approximations of those scenes in Wag the Dog when De Niro, Hoffman, and Heche find themselves mopey and stranded in the quote-unquote middle of nowhere, except Let's Talk About the Rain has nothing to set beside the sharper, fiercer sequences in Wag the Dog that kept us cheerful through the longeurs. When Jaoui's picture works, it works because of wholly incidental pleasures like Bacri's gift at playing the first kiss of drunkenness, or Florence Loiret's saucy persona as a wispier, less haughty Adjani, or the implacable stare of a bulky "paysan" who simply doesn't get that it's rude and discomfiting to stare at a woman and admire the "whiteness" of her arms.

The film is often prey to overstating its punchlines and the occasional set-piece, like a mean-spirited, burlesque decoy for the actual Agathe interview that Karim cuts together and Michel unveils at a hugely inopportune moment. Rain's flaws, then, as much as its virtues are emphatically those of situational comedy, and if Americans who get testy about subtitled movies could ever conceive of a subtitled TV show, they'd probably love the one that Jaoui and Bacri would concoct. I wish these two wanted a bit more from their movies (as, again, they seem to have done in the past), and I wonder how well they would fare in vehicles over which they didn't exercise such total authority. Do they ever push against their own boundaries? Bacri, for example, is a clever mime with good comic timing, but if he has any gift for drama, he should be growing out a beard and commissioning a script for Fatwa: The Life of Salman Rushdie. Or, if he and Jaoui, flush but somehow unsatiated with their success, suddenly feel like taking more risks without forsaking their proven terrain, they could force themselves to be nimble and pushy and ambitious with a droll new comedy called Fatwa: The Salman Rushdie Story.

Much sooner than that, I suspect, they'll be writing Comedy A and assigning each other characters with Occupation B and Temperament C, cobbling decent and playable roles for the second-tier actors who are jolly well pleased to work with them, and making sure that the camera doesn't move too much or for god's sake force a perspective. Let's Talk About the Rain is fine for festivals but hard on grading: it's "better" than the addled affairs I've screened this week by James Gray and Michael Winterbottom, but those fellows think in images and rhythms while Jaoui and Bacri, at least on this film's evidence, are limimted to contriving scenarios and banging out badinage that makes the audience titter without making them remotely uncomfortable. I'm happy to applaud a film that fulfills its appointed tasks, and Rain mostly does that. But, for my part, give me an interesting failure any day over the kind of movie you describe as "nice" because it isn't a whole lot else. Grade: C+

VOR: (1)   (What is this?)
As the above review hopefully indicates, Let's Talk about the Rain isn't without its comic and narrative recommendations, but none of them add up to a potent statement of real value. An almost emblematic case of a gifted team spinning its wheels between projects.

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