20 March 2006 | Chris Knipp
Hard to dislike, but too fast and loose for advocacy or even for comedy
Housewarming: the complete title refers to home remodeling or construction work and it's a wry French saying we know when it begins -- but never when it will end. The film begins as a bit of whimsy, turns into a chaotic mess, and ends as a warm -- but unintentionally ambiguous -- editorial in favor of hiring undocumented workers. It's wholly inaccurate as a depiction of current demographics and overtly fantastic, yet the circumstances of the film-making mirror the circumstances of the story. The result is genial and amusing, but in terms of craft there's a bit too much bricolage in the mise-en-scene as well as the work in question on screen. From the American point of view there's probably also a lot of verbal humor that gets lost in translation -- though there's plenty of funny business going on visually.
The whimsy concerns a Parisian lady barrister, Chantal Letelier (Carole Bouquet), who's highly successful in defending homeless illegals. When some Spanish sublets move out of a maid's room upstairs and she realizes she might be able to open up her ceiling a bit, Chantal practices what she preaches, so to speak, and lets her flat be overrun by Columbian remodelers, led by an aspiring and unpredictable architect (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo). There's a fat, wrinkly former client with a big mustache, a sort of stubby Fernandel (Jean-Pierre Castaldi), who decides he's in love with Chantal and pursues her with flowers and pet names, and there are a cute teenage son and daughter who have to put up with becoming nearly homeless themselves as all the walls are knocked out and the functioning parts of the flat are disconnected. The son, Martin (Ferdinand Chesnais, son of Patrick of I'm Not Here to be Loved/Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé), likes to roller-blade to the bathroom. The architect has new plans every day and card less and dangerous workers who flirt with Chantal, dance with her daughter Pulchérie (Giulia Dussolier) and teach her Spanish, but can't do plumbing, electric, tiles, or sheet rock. Their only real accomplishment is knocking out walls. And they aren't very good at acting either.
What contributes no doubt to the morphing of whimsy into mess and yet makes the movie work at times and even occasionally charm us in spite of ourselves -- though without impressing us cinematically -- is that the shooting and the story, as mentioned, were parallel situations: Roüan, whose advocacy parallels Chantal's, used dozens of undocumented workers to stage her project about undocumented workers, and the crew really did have to dodge the police during the shooting, which involved a lot of non-actors as suggested; that's probably why they're not very good at acting and surrounded the elegant, lithe Carole Bouquet who breaks into a dance and also break-dances when she's presenting cases before judges with real as well as simulated chaos.
What one remembers about Housewarming is the people. If you like them, you like the movie. There are a lot of them -- Columbian, Malian, Moroccan, Italian, French and some of them I liked. Not all. Some I got tired of pretty quick, and others I'd like to have seen more of.
The whole thing is fast and loose, and at the end it's held together by a kind of team spirit. Like classic comedies, it ends with a celebration.
Roüan admitted, at the Lincoln center Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Q&A, that the movie isn't at all realistic notably in putting a lot of Columbians on the job when in fact it's Arab and African workers who do such work in Paris. Why the change? Roüan's whim. Contrast Jolivet's Zim and Co, another 2006 Rendez-Vous film that's light and humorous about social problems, but concerns real and specific situations and follows accurate demographics for the Paris banlieu setting it concerns.
Yong Betamax (Geovanny Tituaña), who quickly pairs off with Chantal's daughter by mutual consent and teaches her rumba and Spanish and other nifty things, was a paid boy assassin in Medellín. Pretty cool; but would you want your daughter to date one? And given the pro-illegals stance, is it appropriate that the crew makes a costly mess of their house remodeling job? The gutted apartment looks splendid at the end, and is admired by Hugh Grant in a last minute cameo appearance thus justifying English financial support for the movie but there's no progression in the chaotic film to this state or explanation of how it was arrived at.
Travaux is a genial piece that's hard to dislike because it means so well and everybody had so much fun making it. But there are too many points when Roüan's directing seems as out of control as the events she relates. The scenario is much more precise and witty than the mise-en-scène, which clearly got completely out of hand more than once. This is good-humored advocacy which may be the right way to go and it could have possibilities for US distribution But it didn't work very well as a film for me, and at times it was downright irritating.
(Shown at the March 2006 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today at Lincoln Center, New York, Travaux opened in Paris June 1, 2005, when it appears to have fared better with the critics than with the public.)