13 February 2006 | noralee
A Comic Road Romance for Grown-Ups
"When the Sea Rises (Quand la mer monte...)" is like a French intellectual "Almost Famous" about grown-ups, with a frisson of the Italian "Bread and Tulips (Pane e tulipani)" about a middle-aged woman's self-discovery.
When Hollywood realizes that an American adaptation can be made by touring small towns, I'm sure the lead will not look like Yolande Moreau's "Irene" 45-year-old Roseanne Barr-look alike comic performance artist touring a satirical one-person show that's translated as "Nasty Business: Sex and Violence." The American will be a thin, pretty chick singer and the never-seen husband (probably will just be a fiancé) at home will be a lot less sympathetic and there will not be a child there to make her feel that much more guilty.
Doubtless the U.S. version will play up the contrast between romantic lyrics and her life, while this very unusually finds the feeling behind feminist humor about romance. There's funny lines that can be taken verbatim, as she mulls over "sugar waffles or romance". Yes, just her coming out on stage in a shapeless shift with a gargoyle-type mask seeking a lover she declares her "chicken" is funny, let alone that the red powder we see her cover herself in is ostensibly the blood of her last lover. The film sweetly illustrates that old stand by of why a woman chooses a guy: "He made me laugh."
The work a day world of touring the provinces that we don't usually get to see in French films is marvelously portrayed and is based on the co-writer/director/star's own experiences on the road, as we see many different performances of her actual show and how audience participation changes it. There's very amusing vignettes of the trials and tribulations of performing in county fairs, nursing homes, primary schools and cultural centers of no interest to most in the community to a high-brow comedy festival (with its too heavy-handed, very French philosophical discussion about what is comedy and can women be funny). We can get the class differences of beer vs. wine drinkers without this kind of talk.
The groupie mechanic she attracts is more problematical and his attitude and actions constantly keep us off kilter. Is he a stalker? Does he have a screw loose? (The American version would make much more of the background TV news stories about a serial killer con man on the loose to raise our and her suspicions.) Can he tell fantasy from reality as he follows her around and ingratiates himself into her show every night as he seems to react to her brazen stage persona so different from her off-stage life, like Leslie Caron with the marionettes in "Lili" or like the hypnotized Giulietta Masina in "Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria)." Does he separate her on and off stage or is she changing? Her discomfort at being seen as "silly" becomes her ultimate put down of him.
His side avocation of providing the giant puppets for floats (in a poorly translated explanation) for colorful parades seems too symbolic, but is a lot of fun to see, especially as he morphs into her fantasies, such as imagining him as Don Quixote. It almost seemed a satire of all those chick flicks where the up tight woman finds romance in a little village that just happens to have a festival, as in "Under the Tuscan Sun" and "A Walk in the Clouds," as this guy and his cohorts bring their own parade with them. One scene where they chase live chickens on the road is way too obvious.
The road trip is presented through lovely cinematography, particularly as they take side trips off the beaten path at beautiful settings and surroundings.
The poor subtitles significantly blunt the film for English viewers, and not just for what seems to be poorly translated jokes. Not only is there a confusing scene where English subtitles are put directly over French ones as the character is speaking in another language (Flemish I'm told) so that they are illegible, but the opera lyrics aren't translated. This turns out to be crucial for those who are made to feel embarrassingly uneducated, amidst feeling charmed by the film, as I didn't realize that was "La Traviata" playing over and over and that the libretto had some resonance to the story. Similarly, it was only by staying through the last credit that I discovered that the movie's title referred to a song that was evidently also not translated so I missed that meaning.
The credits very nicely thank all the towns and audiences where the show was performed.
An American version would also have a different ending.