Dir: Pierre Salvadori. France 2013. 97mins
The communal courtyard has been a prime venue for French comedy at least since the heyday of Jean Renoir. But it’s no longer quite where the action is, judging by In the Courtyard, an uneasy tragicomic vehicle for Catherine Deneuve and sometime director (Mammuth, Le Grand Soir) and TV comic (Groland) Gustave Kervern.
Deneuve, for once, seems slightly out of her depth, her natural charisma and grandeur jarring oddly with the pathos and confusion of her disoriented character.
In The Courtyard (Dans la Cour) is the story of oddball alliances forming amid a welter of depressions, obsessions and breakdowns starts out as an amiable lark, veers into facetious territory, then takes an awkward left turn into much darker terrain. Even the presence of Deneuve and the usually reliable - and in recent years, increasingly mainstream - director Pierre Salvadori (Priceless, Beautiful Lies) won’t massively boost the chances of this solemn and misguided venture.
Hulking, hirsute, likeably lugubrious Kervern plays Antoine, a rock singer who undergoes a breakdown on tour and bails out of his musical career. Opting for a regular job, the generally unqualified and unworldly Antoine is taken on as janitor in a Paris apartment block where the residents in charge are retired union official Serge (Atkine) and his wife Mathilde (Deneuve), now busy with volunteer work. The undermotivated, easily biddable Antoine hits it off with Stéphane (Marmaï), a druggy ex-footballer who proves to be the worst possible influence, and also finds himself harbouring a deranged cult member and his dog.
Meanwhile, Mathilde becomes increasingly obsessed with a crack in her wall and, convinced that the block is about to crumble, sets up a meeting to warn locals the impending apocalypse - with results that lead her into as precarious a mental state as Antoine’s.
As the supporting players’ eccentricities mount up and Antoine retreats ever more into drink- and drink-fuelled glumness, it becomes increasingly hard to accept the film as a properly functioning comedy. A brief dream sequence in which Paris is suddenly devoured by a colossal pooch comes across as grindingly incongruous.
The film’s final act takes a turn into seriously dark territory, as both Mathilde and Antoine fall apart mentally, by which time the film is dealing with emotional material that it isn’t remotely equipped to deal with, either narratively or in terms of insight. Kervern is affably glum throughout, and makes his near-catatonic rocker very real.
But Deneuve, for once, seems slightly out of her depth, her natural charisma and grandeur jarring oddly with the pathos and confusion of her disoriented character. The limited setting - the film is largely, but wholly set in the block of flats - exacerbates the overall claustrophobic glumness.
Production company: Les Fillms Pelléas
International sales: Wild Bunch, www.wildbunch.biz
Producer: Philippe Martin
Screenplay: Pierre Salvadori, David Colombo-Léotard
Cinematography: Gilles Henry
Editor: Isabelle Devinck
Production design: Michel Barthélémy
Music: Stephin Merritt, Grégoire Hetzel
Main cast: Catherine Deneuve, Gustave Kervern, Féodor Atkine, Pio Marmaï, Michèle Moretti