London Film Festival 2016: SOUVENIR

I can't recall what triggered it, but I've been having an Isabelle Huppert season at home and in the cinema (she seems to be busier than ever). In quick succession I've recently watched Merci Pour Le Chocolat, Things to Come, Ma Mère , La Cérémonie, Rien Ne Va Plus (wow, that's three Chabrols; I love Chabrol also) and, at the London Film Festival the other night, Souvenir (Belgium-Luxembourg-France, 2016, dir. Bavo Defurne). 

Huppert has long been in that special club of contemporary actors I will go out of my way to watch in anything they do but I'm trying to remember when I first saw her. The most likely candidate is Godard's Sauve qui peut (1980) when I was going through a postgraduate Godard binge on VHS films in the early 90s. Since then I've been fascinated by her presence, her range, her straw-thin paleness, supercar-gull-wing-door eyebrows, disturbing roles, and general all-round fearlessness.

So I always search the London Film Festival for her name and up came Souvenir with the following synopsis:

Liliane (Isabelle Huppert) works in the Porluxe pâté factory. Once a rising star, a chanteuse and finalist in the Eurovison song contest, she has wilfully drifted into the shadows. So it’s unsurprising that she is horrified when talented young boxer Jean (Kévin Azaïs), who has a day job at the factory, recognises her. Jean is ‘ooh la la’, a sweet young thing – all manners and muscles, totally besotted with Liliane and utterly convinced of her musical genius. He persuades her to come out of retirement and the two begin a passionate affair . . . . 

First up: I don't think Liliane (stage name, 'Laura') 'wilfully' drifted into obscurity (she's here through the fickleness of fame and a bad relationship with her former partner and manager) and it must be said that Jean is not an especially talented boxer: he's not awfully effective and he decides to retire after the first fight we see him lose. So much for synopses. The rest is about right.

Souvenir reminded me a little of Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul recast as a light French sitcom pilot. It's a bright, stylish and amusing [don't say soufflé, don't say soufflé, don't say soufflé] soufflé of a film that flits by engagingly and gives Huppert the opportunity to charm and seduce as the rather naff Euro-singer with hilariously stilted gestures and saccharine songs. [The songs are pretty good, as it happens, supplied by Pink Martini. With La La Land doing so well at the moment and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend standing out on Netflix, it seems that we're ready for another musical revival. I swear that Scorsese's brilliant New York New York will finally have its day!]

In Wild, Ania meets a wolf that radically changes her life and in Souvenir, Liliane is (gently) pursued by the naive young boxer whose name happens to be Jean Leloup (the wolf). He turns up as a temp in the drab pâté factory where Liliane (trying to hide her luminous Isabelle-Huppertness under a hygienic hair net and white overalls) is tasked with arranging bay leaves, peppercorns and berries on the top of a never-ending supply of large, just-cooked pâtés.

Jean recognises the enigmatic star 'Laura' because his dad is a huge fan (the script is peppered with poignant reflections on ageing and the pain of lost fame) and he eventually lures her into a one-off secret performance at his boxing club, which results in Liliane being 'outed' at work by a local TV crew, much to her rather-hard-drinking despair.

Eventually, Liliane and Jean become lovers (she is, I would guess 60, while Jean is in his early 20s). Interestingly, the 'scandal' of this (if scandal it be – and it really doesn't register as such, perhaps because both leads are so likable and Huppert is so magnetic) is of little interest to the filmmakers, the characters, and the story.

Jean's youth and naivete certainly play a role in the development of the plot and the eventual fate of the romance but, beyond the nature of their personalities, the relationship is allowed to run its course without societal intervention. Okay, Leloup's mother is not best pleased but that's perhaps more to do with her husband's vicarious delight in her son sleeping with the Euro-star of his past and current fantasies.

Bavo Duferne was on hand to introduce the film and he said something I liked very much: 'The story is about what happens when an optimist falls in love with a pessimist'. That's a theme I'd like to see explored further. One of the BFI selectors also described Souvenir as 'A charm-bomb' and I sort of agree; a charm-firework perhaps. You'll have to see it to find out whether pessimism or optimism prevails. 

Next up: Zoology