22 August 2013

Pascal Bonitzer’s ‘Looking for Hortense’

The original French title of this film was Cherchez Hortense, which must have presented a problem for the translators. Literally “Search for Hortense” (in the imperative), the meaning, in terms of the plot, is more like “Get Hold of Hortense” or, even less directly, “Contact Hortense”. The story could probably be described well enough as “Damien Sorts Himself Out”.

Damien Hauer (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is a middle-aged Parisian academic specialising in Far Eastern culture. His partner Iva (Kristin Scott Thomas, KST) is a theatre director. He agrees to help Aurore, the young acquaintance of their friends, whose presence in France is illegal. Damien, despite his uneasy relationship with his parents, seeks the assistance of his father who is one of the présidents de section at the Conseil d'État, advisers to the French government on the application of administrative law. His father eventually declines to approach the highly influential Henri Hortense on the matter, so Damian practices a mild deception and secures a meeting with Hortense which turns out to be inconclusive. While all this is going on, Damian has serious domestic problems, one of his friends becomes suicidal, and he gets into a couple of other scrapes. At the end a solution to Aurore’s problem, which might also solve one of his own, becomes apparent.

I thought the film was better than most of its reviews but had two main problems. The scriptwriting would have benefited from some of the meanderings being removed, but more seriously the casting was at odds with the ages of the characters. Damien says he first went to China just after graduating, a year or so before Tiananmen Square (1989). He should therefore have been in his mid-forties at the time of filming (2011). However, Bacri was born in 1951 and looks as though he has lived most of the years since to the full, whereas KST, born 1960, has no problem in passing herself off as ten years younger. Bacri’s looks are consistent with those of Claude Rich who plays the father, Sébastien, but Rich was born in 1929! Damien’s friends are too old as well. About the right age (his birthdate is unknown to the internet, but his acting career began in 1973) is Philippe Duclos as Hortense. His portrayal of slippery intelligence is familiar on BBC4 in the form of juge d'instruction (examining magistrate) François Roban in the Spiral series (Engrenages). Hortense is quite a few layers further up in Parisian society than Roban, and has a house in the place des Etats-Unis with a magnificent jardin d’hiver. The location for Damien’s lectures, it seems from IMDb, was a conference room at the French communist party HQ.

Bonitzer (born 1946!) is an eminent figure in French cinema, a former critic for Cahiers du cinéma, biographer of Eric Rohmer and scriptwriter and director (or both) for numerous films. His daughter, Agathe plays Laetitia. Not surprisingly, Looking for Hortense is in the New Wave tradition of French realism, nicely shot in Paris and worth seeing if you like that kind of film.

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