Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Jaoui’s Let It Rain

It is a premise ripe for biting political commentary. Despite their paucity of credentials, two incompetent male documentary filmmakers are granted to access to a celebrity-feminist making her first run for public office. Complications very definitely ensue, but director Agnés Jaoui resists judging her characters too harshly in her latest film, Let It Rain (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Always the favorite sister, Agathe Villanova grew up to become a media darling. A famous feminist writer, she allows her sister Florence to live in the family home they co-own, for a reasonable monthly rent, of course. Florence and her husband have been experiencing a rough patch, which is why they will soon lay-off the family’s longtime domestic, Mimouna. The French-Algerian woman does not feel she has a right to complain though, because the famous sister is funding her divorce from her abusive husband. However, the situation makes candidate Villanova more inclined to agree when Mimouna’s son Karim, an aspiring filmmaker, asks permission to document her campaign in collaboration with his one-time mentor, Michel Ronsard, who also happens to be Florence’s lover.

Such complicated and furtive inter-relationships might sound like the stuff of soap opera, but in Jaoui’s hands it all logically seems like a function of the world these characters live in. There are a plethora of potentially distracting hot-button political dimensions to the drama she unfolds, such as issues of class-consciousness, feminism, spousal abuse within Muslim immigrant families, and the collusive cluelessness of the media. Yet, it is all simply adds background texture to Rain’s central story of the rival sisters and their problematic attempts at romantic love.

Talky in a good way, Jaoui and her co-writer and co-star Jean-Pierre Bacri scripted some crisp, mature dialogue that is refreshingly entertaining, even in subtitles. Jaoui is a smart and engaging presence, solidly anchoring the film as the celebrated Villanova sister. However, Bacri is a standout, often amusing but ultimately quite affecting as Ronsard, a man desperately trying not to be a failure altogether as a journalist, a lover, and a father. Jean Debbouze also makes quite a strong impression as his increasingly exasperated partner Karim. While he occasionally gives vent to the frustrations rising from his immigrant family’s circumstances, ideologically it is pretty mild stuff.

Rain is a wistfully gentle and forgiving film filled with shrewdly observed moments. Jaoui’s restraint is a marvel throughout, never overselling her drama and leaving the film at an unfinished place that feels perfectly fitting nonetheless. Recommended with enthusiasm, it opens this Friday (6/18) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Angelika Film Center.