An Ingenious New French Comedy of Art and Friendship

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One of the privileges and pleasures of working as a film critic is that people occasionally send me movies that aren’t yet available in the U.S. Some of them are very good—and a precious few are so good that, were they to be shown here, they’d rank among the year’s most significant releases. So it is with a new film from France, released there in June under the title “Vas-Tu Renoncer?” (“Will You Give Up?”), by the veteran independent filmmaker Pascale Bodet. It’s listed on IMDb under the title of “Edouard and Charles,” the names of the two main characters: the painter Édouard Manet and the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire. The film is based on the historical friendship between the two men (whose last names are never mentioned), but is set in the present day. Bodet depicts both figures as simultaneously of their time and outside of it, and this unresolved ambiguity lends the movie a tone, combining intellectual earnestness and screwball comedy, that’s as audacious and distinctive as it is deftly sustained.

“Vas-Tu Renoncer?” confronts the eternal drama of art and commerce, aesthetics and institutions, and the slings and arrows that boldly original artists are often condemned to endure. It condenses these grand themes into a tense, pressurized, yet lyrically comical span of just seventy-one minutes. Édouard (Benjamin Esdraffo)—socially awkward, buttoned-up, and self-doubting—is desperate to show the painting that he considers to be his masterwork, “Olympia,” to his brusque and bumptious friend Charles (Pierre Léon), and he embarrassingly cajoles, coaxes, and importunes Charles to come by his studio for a viewing. Charles, for his part, is desperately in need of a grant, which an arts-world bureaucrat named Jeanne Brillo (Marianne Basler) promises to help him get, and he keeps putting Édouard off with vague promises and brazen excuses. Édouard continues to work on the painting as if in the dark, unadvised by Charles, who chases the money ever more shamelessly. When it comes to light that Charles has grossly and selfishly affronted Édouard, a mutual friend, the connoisseur and curator d’Aurilleby (played by Marc Barbé and based on the real-life writer Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly), tries to mediate between the two friends.

These psychological and professional maneuverings are, from the start, shuffled madly by a joker in the deck, whose introduction to the story is a mark of Bodet’s cinematographic and comedic inspiration. The action begins on a street outside the Louvre, with a crowd of pedestrians passing by a Métro stop. Through shrewd framing, the viewer’s attention is gradually fixed on one stiff figure, dressed in a heavy, old-fashioned suit, coiffed with a style-challenged comb-forward, standing still amid the daily agitation—Édouard. He’s there for a planned meeting with Charles. Instead, a moppy-haired buffoon in gym shorts jogs over, parks himself beside Édouard, and imitates him gesture for gesture. This interloper, named Gulcan (Serge Bozon), is an oafish naïf of no expressed ethnicity or origin, who speaks only in mimicked fragments of words he hardly understands (his repeated garbling of “caricature” is a tangled wonder). The one term he gets in its essence, if not in its pronunciation, is ami, “friend.” As if knowing that he’ll be a friend in need to the fretful Édouard, Gulcan latches on to the painter and follows him around.

Gulcan is the free-floating variable in the movie’s crucial relationships, a mouthpiece of literal incomprehension and an embodiment of spiritual understanding. Like a modern-day Pierrot (or like Jerry Lewis, Harry Langdon, or the title character of “Toni Erdmann”), he possesses a holy foolishness that comes off as the tenderly innocent soul of art—a childlike spirit that’s only a step from childishness. He bears witness when a hipster curator gives Édouard a personal invitation to a group show that Édouard has not been included in. He’s there when d’Aurilleby (whose name Gulcan mangles as “Do-Ré-Bi”) needs to relay a message from Charles to Édouard. And he’s there for the antic moment when Édouard finally catches up with the cavalier poet. That scene, occurring a few minutes into the film, is the one that decisively hooked me: from afar, Charles is seen chasing Jeanne toward the entrance of the Pompidou Center. Though nobody is waiting on line to get in, Charles and Jeanne must nonetheless negotiate the zigzagging path of the crowd-control belt barriers that block their way. In this virtual urban street dance, as in Gulcan’s gestural impersonations, Bodet displays a choreographic art of physical comedy that’s all too rare in a modern cinema of one-liners and sketch humor.

Bodet filmed “Vas-Tu Renoncer?” mainly on location in Paris, with a discerning eye for the vistas and textures of city streets and public spaces—cafés and offices and the colossal rectilinear expanses of the modern National Library. Her characters, true to their cultural eminence, seem to fill the city with their presence and their ideas, thanks in part to visual compositions that synch the actors’ distinctive mannerisms with the street life around them, and to a soundtrack that puts their voices in closeup, even when they’re seen at a distance. The film’s comedy is built from a series of infinitesimal touches and chance intrusions, as when Édouard, espying Charles in the street, leaps from his seat at a sidewalk café and jostles a waiter bearing drinks. Moments later, as the two men have a stressful talk about their lives, a stranger, laughing hard into his cell phone, bumps up against Charles and interrupts them. Another stranger is strikingly foregrounded in a café scene in which Gulcan is unintentionally entertaining the customers with his garbling of names and words. With the same techniques of precisely captured glances and gazes, phrases and gestures, Bodet also captures the melancholy of the characters’ conflicting allegiances to friendship and art, as in a majestically simple scene detailing Charles’s use of a cell phone to keep track of his fretful friend’s progress, and—in a moment that joltingly departs from realism—a mysterious talking reflection that spurs the disloyal Charles to a crisis of conscience.

Naturalistic films of ordinary experience can overcome directorial shortcomings with aptness of observation, depth of knowledge, or intensity of emotion. But a film based on artifice, such as “Vas-Tu Renoncer?,” is all or nothing—the dialogue, the tone, the ideas, the performances, the images, the locations, the costumes, and the incidentals must all be just right, because one false move would irreparably shatter the unity of the illusion. Bodet’s film is fundamentally a work of taste, of refined choices and fitting touches. As d’Aurilleby, Barbé incarnates a whimsically pensive gravity that brings to mind a French version of Bill Murray in his dramatic roles. Esdraffo, as the tormented but determined Édouard, and Léon, as the abrasive yet sheepish Charles, blend graceful self-control with impulsive freedom. And Bozon’s performance as Gulcan is a marvel of theatrical precision and uninhibited risk. Though far more celebrated as a director (as of “Mrs. Hyde,” starring Isabelle Huppert), he’s always been busier as an actor, and I’m ready to watch the next film in the series of the adventures of Gulcan.

The fundamental test of taste is in Bodet’s realization of the potentially absurd anachronistic element—the lives and fortunes of Manet and Baudelaire in the age of the smartphone, a conceit that could easily have turned goofy or pedantic. Here, too, the film skates deftly on the edge of danger, keeping in delicate balance the ordinary stuff of daily life and the passionate, inspired eccentricities of the historical protagonists. Édouard and Charles serve as exotic touchstones for current follies, which in turn put into sharp focus the discomforts of their outsider status in their own times. Bodet plays the conceit straight throughout, and then she sticks the landing with a virtuosic concluding sequence that boldly manipulates time. With a stunningly original repertory of plainly realistic images, she conjures a virtual Möbius strip of dramatic chronology, yoking the timeless wonder of art to the time-bound tragedy of artists’ lives. ♦


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