If not quite a hate-letter to the idea of motherhood, then certainly a strongly-worded memo of complaint, Julie Delpy‘s sixth directorial feature “Lolo” features long stretches of perhaps her most accomplished and enjoyable character-comedy yet. But as often with filmmakers for whom a certain register comes almost too easily, Delpy seems impatient with herself and her facility for spiky, verbal sparring and pithy self-deprecating put-downs. As though anxious to push beyond that, “Lolo,” (co-written with Eugenie Grandval) which starts off bright, breezy, and deceptively progressive––especially in its portrayal of a fabulously foulmouthed and dirty-minded central female friendship––moves into more densely plotted and dark-hearted territory in its latter stages. The ambition is admirable, but in execution it means the witty, sophisticate comedy gives way to farce and contrivance, and an unwelcome sourness creeps into the fizz that the winning performances cannot quite mask.
After a lovingly 60s-pastichey animated opening credits sequence, set to the jaunty strains of “Music to Watch Girls By” we’re introduced to Parisienne Violette (Delpy) and her friend Ariane (Karin Viard), who are on a spa holiday in Biarritz. Despite displaying that precise urbanite disdain for the sticks that many big-city professionals have for anywhere outside the capital, Violette, at Ariane’s urging, “gets her chimney swept” by a gauche but charming local IT-engineer Jean-Rene (Dany Boon) and surprises herself by falling for him hard. (It doesn’t hurt that as we learn later, he sweeps chimneys with a very big brush. Or maybe it does.) Thankfully, he happens to be moving to Paris in few weeks to start a new job, and so he and Violette resume their relationship, if anything hotter and heavier, as soon as he arrives. The scene could easily be set for a fish-out-of-water/odd couple relationship comedy, spiced up with elements, such as mid-40s romance and the tribulations of being new in town, that Delpy has already had success with elsewhere — in “Before Midnight,” which she also co-wrote, and in her directorial features “2 Days in New York” and “2 Days in Paris.” And Delpy and Boon make an appealingly mismatched pair, even if they haven’t got half the chemistry of Delpy and Viard.
But we haven’t even got to Violette’s son Lolo yet (played by Vincente Lacoste, whom Delpy directed before in her underseen 2011 title “Skylab,”) and We Need To Talk About Lolo. A louche, cocky 19 year-old, and the unblemished apple of his fashionista mother’s eye (“This is Lolo. He is the future of humanity” is how Violette introduces him and while not exactly serious, she does not appear to be exactly joking either), artist Lolo radiates self-assurance and effortless cool, and revels in the unusually boundary-free relationship with his mother. He is also a sociopath.
This much is revealed to us fairly early on when we learn that he has spent most of his young adult years serially sabotaging every romantic opportunity his mother has ever had, the better to keep her to himself. Of course, Jean-Rene becomes his next target, for reasons that at first seem to be as much predicated on selfishness (wanting to be able to stay living with Violette, needing to use her contacts to boost his career) as pathology. But when the naive, sincere, and genuinely loving Jean-Rene proves unusually difficult to dislodge, Lolo’s stratagems graduate from hijinks with itching powder and spiked drinks to the potentially life-ruining, and a lot of the fun drains away in the process. Instead of quick-fire gags we get manic antics and sitcom-esque setups that could, and would in real life, be cleared up in a second. But perhaps the biggest problem is that Lolo, despite Lacoste’s strong turn in which he hides a watchful manipulativeness behind a perfect cupid’s-bow pout and an air of easy charm, is not simply misguided, he’s actually utterly hateful. He thrives on power plays designed to make his loving mother feel worthless, and is so adept at fooling her that we start to despise her a little bit too, for not seeing through him, and for having raised such a monster. That may be true to the way sociopaths operate, but it sticks in the craw of the film’s comedy.
Julie Delpy is often compared to Woody Allen and “Lolo” with its neurotic lead, urban setting, tentative romance and cultured verbal humor, certainly reinforces that parallel. But, also like Allen, it is humor and character-based drama, not plot that is Delpys strong point, and as soon as she moves out of that zone, “Lolo” loses focus. It’s easy to value too lightly what comes too naturally, but Delpy’s facility for creating chatty, funny, memorable characters––especially women––is rare, precious, and fully on view here. In fact, a full movie of her and her best friend swapping filthy jabs and being mean about their children would be an absolute joy. “Lolo” has many charms––the performances, the polished shooting style (from DP Thierry Arbogast), the resolutely un-PC vibe––but it seems highly possible that if someday Delpy embraces her real strengths as a writer/director and gives us 90 minutes of “Violette et Ariane,” she might just make her “Annie Hall.” [B-]