REVIEW: Peretz's Comic DV Culture Clash in "The Chateau"
by G. Allen Johnson
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This review originally ran in February 2001 as part of indieWIRE's Rotterdam 2001 coverage. IFC Films released the film on Friday.]
When director Jesse Peretz ("First Love, Last Rites") introduced his latest work, the fresh and inventive "The Chateau," to yet another sold-out crowd at this festival, he said the movie was made "on a lark," owing to some extra time he had while working in France on another project.
Sort of makes you wish other movies had taken such a haphazard approach. While more extensively planned bigger-budget features often seem -- thanks to scripts that are at least five rewrites short of getting the point -- overburdened by their meticulous planning and a high-tech postproduction process that gives even modest films that high-gloss look and new-car smell, "The Chateau" is a textbook case for wanna-be DV auteurs.
Sure, it uses handheld camera movements, but with sense and sensibility. It uses natural lighting, sometimes to the film's detriment, but often to achieve a subdued sumptuousness. And most of all, it is, despite its wacky plotting, a work of restraint with low-key meaty acting that delivers the goods. It proves again that it is the content, not the form, which makes good cinema.
Peretz, whose feature, "First Love, Last Rites," debuted in competition here four years ago, may have achieved some of this spot-on timing through his choice of digital video, which has the obvious advantage of virtually endless retakes. So much of "The Chateau," about two American brothers who inherit a castle in France and the kooky servants that go with it, depends on the brothers' pathetic attempts to speak French, which requires expert timing and cadence -- or the joke wears thin quickly.
Graham (Paul Rudd) and Allen (Romony Malco) Granville are in Europe for the first time, and neither are far removed from National Lampoon's Clark Griswold. On the train from Paris, Graham marvels at the scenery: "Everything, even the trees, is so ... European looking!" He has yet to escape his college town in Kansas, where he lives a semi-slacker existence and works at a place called The Glass Onion. Allen, who prefers to be called "Rex," because it's cooler, is less impressed. He's on his cell phone keeping tabs on his small business back in L.A. And he's black -- he's an adopted Granville, a fact which Peretz squeezes maximum comic mileage.
When they arrive, they find the servants, including the butler Jean (Didier Flamand) and the cute young maid Isabella (Silvie Testud) to be a bit odd, and the feeling is mutual. When they warm to the boys, however, they seem delighted that their futures are assured -- the dear departed Count Granville has competent heirs who can assume the mountains of debt wracked up by the old, musty residence.
Big news to the boys, who decide to sell their new money pit and thus alienate the servants, who now appear to fear for their futures. But all is not what it seems. Unknown to the Americans, the servants have been orchestrating a plan to cash in on some insurance money, and instead of being the willing American patsies, the brothers are actually fouling things up.
I couldn't help thinking -- as I watched the boys deal with the servants, show the home to prospective buyers, and as gonad-driven American guys, try and drill the maid -- how many bad movies Paul Rudd has appeared in, and what a shame that is. His work in "Clueless," in the umbra of Alicia Silverstone's star-making performance, was overlooked by critics -- that movie needed Rudd and Dan Hedaya on the top of their games to provide balance.
"The Chateau" is Rudd's best work since then -- his carefully crafted speech to the servants when he announces he is selling the place is beautifully funny, and we'll forgive both he and Peretz for falling into the cliche of the colossally embarrassing drunk scene toward the end.
Malco, a newcomer, is equally fine. Providing the adrenaline drive to counterbalance Rudd's slacker, he is at his best during a hilarious takeoff of Kiarostami's cell phone sequence in "The Wind Will Carry Us." In Peretz's version, Malco runs up the hill in his underwear, trying desperately to haul in the signal of his important call.
Just like Peretz's choice of shooting DV in an ancient French castle, Graham and Rex's story is a hilarious clash of culture, technology and generational attitude.