NYFF REVIEW: "The Carriers are Waiting," Funny, Photographic Satire
by David Bourgeois
Encompassing many of the cinematography techniques that he learned as a gritty photo-journalist in his native Belgium, first-time director Benoît Mariage has crafted a black-and-white, multi-faceted look at an everyday family's struggles as they approach the millennium.
In his film, "The Carriers Are Waiting" (acquired at Cannes by Samuel Goldwyn Films), Roger Closset (the intense actor Benoît Poelvoorde from "Man Bites Dog") is the somewhat addled, exuberant family patriarch who tires of hovering near his police scanner all day, waiting for action so he can take a photo for the ironically named The Daily Hope. To break the monotony, he sets his sights on a local contest that promises a new car to anyone who can break a world record. He forces his very disinterested, 15-year-old son Michel (Jean-François Devigne) to attempt to break the record for the amount of time a door is opened and closed.
From the outset, the film looks as if it will be just another French-language comedy, replete with slapstick and sight gags. What it turns into, however, is a both a touching and introspective palimpsest that looks at the daily struggles of a typical family and a biting wink-and-nod satire at the burgeoning presence of American culture in European society.
Michel is enamored by many things uniquely American: he loves Elvis Presley, reads celebrity magazines (to learn how to become an artful lover), and in his spare time points out continuity flaws in movies for a local radio station.
Realizing that his son is not up to the task of opening and closing a door over 40,000 times in a 24-hour period, Roger enlists the help of a zaftig, affable coach (Bouli Lanners). Like Michel, the coach is also well versed in Americana, but instead of worshiping cultural icons, the coach worships the maniacal training techniques that many American parents use to make winners out of their sons and daughters. In once scene, the coach tries to correct Michel's perceived lack of self-confidence by forcing him to jump off a wall and fall into a waiting group of neighbors, who will catch him.
As all of this unfolds, the winsome young daughter Luise (Margane Simon) is confused by her father's inconsistent antics and is caught in the middle of the family's financial and marital chaos. She befriends the Boo Radley-esque Felix (Philippe Grand-Henry), a next-door neighbor and taciturn pigeon-racer who represents not only much needed normalcy for the pensive Luise, but also success, as Felix has won dozens of awards for his pigeon-racing prowess.
Although the film succeeds in sketching a unique portrait of the struggles of a typical family, it comes up a little short with the character development of the two children, Michel and Luise. In its earnestness to examine the many facets of daily life -- tragedy, comedy, drama, sex, and familial love -- "The Carriers Are Waiting" partially glosses over the film's two richest characters. A few more scenes better defining who they are as characters and showing their reaction to the world around them would have been much welcomed.
This hardly deters from the inventiveness and quality of the film, enhanced greatly by the film's visual palette. As each scene unfolds, it's clear that this is a film made by a photographer --especially one with a journalistic background. The striking black-and-white images are at times stark; other times the grainy texture recalls the work of the photographer Weegee. These images, coupled with a tight, funny script, (a favorite line: "Wipe that dog-taking-a-crap expression off of your face.") make "The Carriers Are Waiting" a pleasant find in the crowded field of foreign films.
[David Bourgeois is a freelance film critic who has covered the Cannes
Film Festival since 1992 and has written and reported for Spy, Spin, The
Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, Interview, Us, New York Magazine,
and Film Threat, among others.]