Isabelle Huppert leads a solid cast through this tonally uneven portrait of a woman that spans countries and decades
Dir. Laurent Larivière. France/Germany/Ireland. 2022. 101 mins.
Isabelle Huppert is famous for her work ethic, and for her commitment to the adventure, or risk, of working with new and rising directors. Consequently, her filmography contains no shortage of exciting left-field ventures – but it also means a fair few duds. There are only a few films in her career that have failed her quality control quite as thoroughly as About Joan, an uneven, sometimes mystifying folly of a picaresque narrative that can never quite settle on whether to be all-out comic, heartstring-grabbingly dramatic or just plain goofy.
About Joan has the baggy, wayward feel of something that might have started as a comic novel, over-expanded, then had to be converted into a film
Huppert sails through with her customary undentable sangfroid and detached wryness, and other cast members acquit themselves more than decently. But About Joan suffers from bizarre shifts of tone, and eccentric decisions all down the line from director and co-writer Laurent Larivière, here working in a much lighter vein than in his 2015 dog-trafficking drama I Am A Soldier. Huppert’s presence alone will ensure festival slots, but the film is unlikely to thrive outside hardcore Francophile niches.
A French-German-Irish co-production, the film begins with a woman (Huppert) driving a car late at night, and introducing herself direct to camera. Her name is Joan Verra – which happens to be French for ‘Joan will see’, and eventually, indeed she will. After emphasising that the name is Joan, not John or Jeanne, she explains that her father was Irish, her mother French, triggering a flashback to Dublin in the 1970s, where the young Joan is working as an au pair. Joan is played in this English-language section by Freya Mavor with a very heavy French accent (Mavor is actually Scottish, but does look very much as if she could be a young Huppert). Joan spots a sly young pickpocket, Doug (Éanna Hardwick), working the crowd; after laying on some industrial-strength roguish charm, he becomes her lover. After a lively pub night dancing to early Boomtown Rats, Joan joins him for a spot of thieving, and the pair eventually get arrested – but they’re such a hot couple that they manage to flirt irrepressibly through the spyhole between their adjoining cells.
Years later, Joan is visited in Paris by an older Doug (Stanley Townsend), rueful but still raffish. In the meantime, she has been a single mother to their son Nathan – played at various ages by Louis Broust, Dimitri Doré and the always watchable Swann Arlaud. Sometime in the 1990s, Joan becomes the literary editor to a drunken, nihilistic, relentlessly troublesome German novelist, Tim Ardenne (Lars Eidinger), who falls for her after she has tolerated his antics on TV and on a Cologne hospital gurney. In another plot strand, Joan’s parents have separated after her mother (Florence Loiret Caille) has fallen for her judo teacher and decamped to Japan.
About Joan has the baggy, wayward feel of something that might have started as a comic novel, over-expanded, then had to be converted into a film. While it’s entirely permissible for a picture to mix registers, this one veers around wildly - knockabout one minute, lachrymose the next. The Irish and German sections seem to belong in different films entirely, while the digression on Joan’s mother is altogether ill-judged: not only because of an excruciating sequence where Maman goes geisha in Japanese make-up and kimono, but also because of a downright barmy scene, inspired by a famous Hokusai woodblock, in which she enjoys sexual rapture with a giant octopus, a gratuitous bit of FX whimsy that can’t have been healthy for the budget.
The action skips to and fro between periods and places, often circling back to Joan’s palatial house in the French countryside (beyond a literary editor’s budget, you might think, but no matter). Particularly odd is the accentuated colour scheme used by Larivière and DoP Céline Bozon, with some sequences steeped in ripe ruby/tangerine orange-red, and the German section coded icy modernist blue; one scene set in a single room even shuttles between red and citrus yellow from shot to shot.
The play with fiction and the art of narrative is not unpromising, with Joan appearing throughout as a highly fallible storyteller, not least to herself. But when the truth of her story finally emerges, the twist not only seems like bad faith towards the audience, but feels both morbid and sentimental.
Jérome Rebotier’s often lush score – supplemented by Elgar – only accentuates the archness of it all. Along with Huppert, though, most of the cast acquit themselves nicely, including a lively Mavor and a solidly elegant Arlaud. The usually excellent Eidinger, however, has been given too long a leash - a pity, since fine tuning might have brought out the sharper comedy in a character who is basically a German version of Michel Houellebecq, less wizened but more rakish.
Production companies: 2.4.7. Films, Gifted Films West, Blinder Films
International sales: Playtime, email@example.com
Producers: Xavier Rigault, Marc-Antoine Robert
Screenplay: François Decodts, Laurent Larivière
Cinematography: Céline Bozon
Editor: Marie-Pierre Frappier
Production design: Aurette Leroy
Music: Jérôme Rebotier
Main cast: Isabelle Huppert, Lars Eidinger, Swann Arlaud, Freya Mavor, Éanna Hardwick, Stanley Townsend