Dir: Mathieu Amalric. France. 2003. 85mins
And you thought they didn't make them like this any more' an old-fashioned political essay in film-on-film, the latest from director Mathieu Amalric - better known as an actor, though he does not cast himself here - wears its Godard influences proudly on its sleeve, right down to the poster campaign, a neat pastiche of Two Or Three Things I Know About Her. Amalric's free-wheeling comedy dusts down Godard's 1960s interrogations of the relationship between sexual and political battles and shows that the big questions are still unresolved four decades later. But although La Chose Publique, which screened in Directors' Fortnight at Cannes, is handled with appealingly casual grace, it never quite coheres into anything truly biting. Originally a television commission for Arte, it is destined for theatrical release in France but might find a wider reception on the small screen. The respect and affection Amalric commands as one of the good guys of young French cinema should ensure reasonable festival life, but the specificity of the in-jokes about French politics and cultural life will restrict foreign sales potential.
Amalric puts his self-reflexive cards on the table from the start, with a meeting in Arte's boardroom, where executives discuss the progress of a series called Masculine-Feminine - for which Amalric's film was indeed commissioned. All the real-life directors in the series are doing fine, except for Philippe (Chatelain), whose wife and muse Julia (Alvaro) has announced she is seeing another man. Philippe's agony starts feeding into his film, which appears to be partly a documentary essay on the Equality Institute, a body devoted to monitoring equal rights in the workforce, and partly a soapy political romance about a provincial hairdresser (Laroque), persuaded by a manipulative mayor (Menez) to sign up as a right-wing candidate. When not filming, Philippe spends much time daydreaming in the window of a bed store, while other pranks involve dressing as a boxer to confront his love rival in the real-life studios of sports channel L'Equipe TV.
Overtly drawing on Godard's essay-fictions from the mid-1960s onward, Amalric makes bravura play with mixed media: along with the video content, we see the celluloid textures of Philippe's footage of his wife run through a Steenbeck and projected on a screen seen in close-up, perforations and all. There are vox pop interviews, footage of real political gatherings - including the announcement of Jean-Marie Le Pen's election victory - together with an Elle fashion launch.
In truly Godardian fashion, actors Laroque and Menez play themselves - Menez sending himself up as a pompous, creaky thespian, and Laroque throwing a wobbly because, as a socialist, she can't stand playing her character. In addition, Elsa Amiel, who plays Philippe's long-suffering, no-nonsense assistant Elsa, worked as Amalric's own assistant on the film.
All this mirror-play could have been alienating, if the film were not executed with sterling good humour. The director-in-trouble trope has long been a staple of French cinema, but if Amalric's hero is in any way a self-portrait, it is a gamely unflattering one, with the pug-faced Chatelain mercilessly sending up Philippe's narcissism and indolence. The film only really loses direction in its coda - in which the TV-screen ratio suddenly burgeons to 1:85 - where the couple meet to mull over their relationship.
Despite the winning performances of Chatelain and Alvaro, this ending strikes an awkwardly earnest note. The film's moral, finally, is that if male and female make uneasy partners in society, then the personal and the political are just as tricky a match on screen. Though ultimately unsatisfying, La Chose Publique gets full marks for bringing a witty spin to the nowadays-neglected tradition of Godardian political cinema.
Prod cos: Films du Poisson, Arte France, GMT Productions
Int'l sales: Roissy Films
Prods: Laetitia Gonzalez, Yael Fogiel, Jean-Pierre Guerin
Scr: Mathieu Amalric, Marcelo Novais Teles, Christine Dory
Cinematography: Isabelle Razavet
Ed: Dominique Gallieni
Music: Rodolphe Burger
Main cast: Jean-Quentin Chatelain, Anne Alvaro, Michele Laroque, Bernard Menez, Elsa Amiel