NYFF '99: "Rien Sur Robert"-Fairly Uninteresting and Hackneyed Formula Film
by David Bourgeois
Many recent French films seem to follow a plotting device that goes a little something like this: A Brilliant male _______ (artist/writer/ actor) tires of _______ (shy/pernicious/arrogant) female. The _______ (sulking/suicidal/egotistical) male meets a gorgeous, chain-smoking _______ (unsatisfied/broke/angst-ridden) female. The male then has _______ (unfulfilling/carefree/blisteringly hot) sex with his new love, but she in turn gets sick of his _______ (ennui/self-loathing/ uncertainty) and meets someone else.
Sometimes these angst-ridden relationship films succeed, like with Olivier Assayas “Late August, Early September“-a multi-layered narrative, filled with complex characters, that isn’t just about who slept with whom and why.
Unfortunately Pascal Bonitzer‘s film “Rien Sur Robert“–while tackling many of the same topics explored by Assayas (down to the same profession shared by many of the characters)–doesn’t shatter this clichéd story line. It’s too bad, because the opening five minutes lay the groundwork for what should have been a hilarious and unique premise.
In an article written before the film opens, writer Didier Temple (the plain-looking Fabrice Luchini) has trashed a Bosnian film which he has not seen. (This is based on a real-life situation that happened in France.) Didier’s alleged secret is anything but; all of his colleagues and friends seem to be in the know, but never confront Didier about it and only allude to it in passing.
Didier grudgingly attends a dinner party thrown by the acrimonious, perfectly-named literary critic Ariel Chatwick-West (Michel Piccoli). Instead of joining a discussion on literary technique and writers, Didier is upbraided the eminent Chatwick-West. Didier storms out of the dinner, not before he meets the young, stunningly beautiful Aurelie (Valentina Cervi). He flirts with her a bit in her room, and so begins an on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again love triangle among Didier, Aurelie and Didier’s longtime, mature and potty-mouthed girlfriend, Juliette (Sandrine Kiberlain).
Juliette is the polar opposite to Aurelie. She’s curt, short- tempered, sexually promiscuous, and downright psychotic when it comes to commitment. It’s hard to remember the number of times she tells Didier that she’s sick of him, only to return soon after claiming he’s the only one for her. How much of this back-and-forth can an audience stomach? It’s like watching a bad tennis match–and as exciting, too.
Thankfully one scene breaks this routine, and it comes when Juliette glowingly explains to Didier–in humorous, graphic detail–the sexual encounter she had with another man. Not surprisingly, this drives Didier into the waiting arms of the unstable Aurelie. It’s at this point in the film where it turns into the kind of farce that the French have a knack for doing particularly badly.
What could have been a scathing look at an unscrupulous film writer- -with a witty sidelight into his relationships–instead becomes an utterly ludicrous and banal look at the indecisiveness of three rather unappealing characters.
In fact, it’s a mystery as to why Bonitzer brought up Didier’s unethical journalistic lapse in the first place. It seems to have no bearing on what becomes the main story.
It’s a shame, because the whole idea of a critic writing a scathing attack on a film he or she hasn’t seen is ripe with satiric possibilities, primarily because it happens quite often in the business of film journalism. (Note to readers: I did see this film, honest.) Instead of writing a negative review, certain critics (lovingly called “quote-whores”) write glowing, ad-friendly copy without ever even seeing the film they’re championing.
It’s clear that Bonitzer (a former editor at Cahiers du Cinema and longtime screenwriter) seems to be at odds with himself. On one level he wants to satirize the lives of insecure, superficial writers. On another level, though, he doesn’t seem to have the stomach for following through on the idea. Unfortunately, in the end, he chooses the easy way out: a fairly uninteresting, hackneyed view of the sexual pursuits of a group of not very smart artists.