By Preston Wilder
This is an English-language paper, so we tend to concentrate on English-language films – but of course there’s a whole world of ‘foreign’ cinema, and some of it even trickles down to the Cyprus market. Francophiles are especially lucky right now, with a French Film Week starting at the Friends of the Cinema Society on Friday, even if the movies on show are a mixed bag. Some of them, like Film Week opener Mademoiselle Chambon, have played outside France and been widely acclaimed. Others, like Pauline Détective – in which a single girl sets about solving a crime she may or may not have imagined – are strictly for domestic consumption.
Then there’s Les Vacances du Petit Nicolas (‘Little Nicholas on Holiday’), which is somewhere in between. It’s not just for French audiences, by definition – it’s playing commercially at the multiplex, like any other film – yet it’s so unmistakably… French. How does this kids’ movie set in the 1960s (based on the children’s books by Sempé and Goscinny) differ from Anglo-American equivalents? Let us count the ways.
1. The French are fond of their past. It’s an article of faith in the UK that Britain in the 60s and 70s was dingy, cruel and backward, full of grumpy bigots who beat their kids and ate inedible food (this is often contrasted with the cool, vibrant, multicultural Britain of today). Similarly, it’s hard to imagine a Hollywood ‘family film’ set in the 1960s that wouldn’t feel obliged to pass a message about changing times in America, pointing out that people in the past were racist, sexist and/or smoked cigarettes.
Petit Nicolas, on the other hand, is brightly nostalgic – not just in the superficial way of cars and hairstyles, but nostalgic for a whole way of life. It dwells affectionately on the annual ritual of Paris emptying for summer holidays, even cutting back to Paris from the beach resort where little Nicolas and his parents are vacationing to show the capital surreally empty, and a man who unwisely stayed behind trying (in vain) to find fellow Parisians. When director Laurent Tirard (born 1967) ends his film with the family coming home, taking dust-covers off the furniture and lugging the suitcase down to the basement in preparation for Dad going back to work the next morning, it has the feel of a fond personal memory.
2. The French aren’t in thrall to their children. American kids’ films are about kids. Parents tend to be generic figures with briefly-sketched, irrelevant problems, except when they bond with their children in the final reel to (a) impart wisdom, (b) tell them they love them, (c) apologise for being too busy to attend their school play, (d) all of the above.
Petit Nicolas, on the other hand, spends as much time on its young hero’s parents as it does on Nicolas himself. Dad (loveably lugubrious Kad Merad) worries about sending a postcard to his boss, and how to address him without sounding servile. Mum (Valerie Lemercier) gets spotted by a Cinecitta producer, stars in a glamorous dance number to the strains of ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’, and finally offers a declaration of love for Dad – recalling this skinny, maladroit young man who nonetheless allowed her to be herself, this clumsy boy she ended up preferring to more worthy suitors – that almost made me weep right there in the cinema. The fact that she’s saying all this to a man in a gorilla costume (at the fancy-dress ball that provides the film’s climax) only makes it better.
3. The French know their films. Tirard even riffs on The Shining at one point – but the title is a clear play on Jacques Tati’s classic Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, and Petit Nicolas is similarly sly and gentle in its humour. There are gags aimed at kids, to be sure (a shower spews excrement from a nearby sewer after Nicolas and his gang switch the pipes), but most of it works by repetition, giving each minor character a tic or catch-phrase. One of Nicolas’ friends likes to eat, another cries all the time, another is English. The English kid’s parents are forever lobster-red from the sun, while other beach denizens include a man forever trying to tune his radio, a man forever building elaborate sandcastles which the kids then trample, etc. I didn’t spot a single fart joke in 97 minutes.
This is old-fashioned fun, though it may fall between two stools. Francophiles will find neither arty cinema nor a glimpse of modern-day France (though actual French people may appreciate the glimpse of an older France). Kids may also resist, because – as in Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia, also directed by M. Tirard – large swathes of the film are too talky, too alien and/or too disconnected from its kid heroes. It’s a rather eccentric kids’ movie, but that’s how the French make kids’ movies. Vive la différence, as they say.
DIRECTED BY Laurent Tirard
STARRING Matheo Boisselier, Kad Merad, Valerie Lemercier
In French, with Greek subtitles.
France 2014 97 mins