Dir: Alain Corneau. France. 2003. 107mins.
An unusual French take on life in the Japanese workplace, Stupeur Et Tremblements (literally Fear And Trembling) is a tightly-executed social drama with a vein of absurdist humour discretely buried beneath the surface. The film, which by some accounts only just missed out on a place in the Berlin festival line-up, has made an honourable start on French commercial release taking $1.8m (326,000 admissions) after four weeks. But it has intelligence and uniqueness that deserve wider play on the international festival circuit and to upscale art-house crowds in Europe at least. It also confirms Sylvie Testud as a major dramatic talent, who merits an international following.
Despite its Japanese setting, the film's only references to earthquakes are in the metaphysical sense. Shaking and quaking are the reactions one is supposed to display in Japan when being disciplined by one's boss.
The story, an adaptation of Belgian novelist Amelie Nothomb's semi-autobiographical best-seller, is that of a Japanophile Belgian woman (Testud) who starts on the bottom rung of a big Nippon trading corporation and achieves the impossible by getting demoted.
Her first transgression is to speak Japanese when serving tea at an inter-company deal meeting. As a westerner she was supposed to be a mute piece of eye candy. She goes on to compound her error by making use of her language skills and diligence to help a colleague from another department compile a report on overseas opportunities for dairy products. In doing so, she breaks just about every rule of workplace hierarchy and drags other people into her anarchy.
Testud, who has uneven features, gangly limbs and barely-disciplined hair, is the perfect contrast for Fubuki (Kaori Tsuji, a model-turned-actress now resident in France), the self-controlled Japanese beauty to whom Amelie misguidedly turns to for support. The performance by Testud, who has a lifetime of bit parts and two previous highlights in Les Blessures Assassines and Murderous Maids, is remarkable not just for her linguistic skills - she speaks Japanese throughout the film - but also for the depth of her courage-under-fire meekness.
In hands as capable as those of director Alain Corneau, whose repertoire ranges from films noirs (Fort Saganne) to elaborate period pieces (Tous Les Matins Du Monde), and cinematographer Yves Angelo, Stupeur moves along attractively and authentically.
To quell a press campaign suggesting it was not actually French, the CNC, the French film industry's governing body, even took the unusual step of issuing a memo verifying its French roots. It was shot, for instance, in France with the La Defense district doubling for high rise Tokyo.
But in its quest for Euro-Asian cultural contrasts, the film occasionally suffers from the problem of stereotyping - there is too much shouting by senior management and the couple of flashbacks to the peaceful Japanese rock gardens of Amelie's childhood are largely superfluous. And although behind most cliches there is an element of truth, this outsider's critique has yet to be given a full stamp of Nippon approval. That would occur when it is picked-up by a Japanese distributor.
Prod cos: Les Films Alain Sarde, Divali Films, France 3 Cinema.
Fr dist: Bac Films
Int'l sales: Wild Bunch - Exception
Exec prods: Alain Sarde
Prod: Christine Gozlan
Scr: Corneau, adapted from novel by Amelie Nothomb
Cinematography: Yves Angelo
Prod des: Philippe Taillefer
Ed: Thierry Derocles
Main cast: Sylvie Testud, Kaori Tsuji, Taro Suwa, Bison Katayama, Yasunari Kondo, Sokyu Fujita, Gen Shimaoka.