To Each Her Own ***
Starring: Sarah Stern, Jean-Christophe Folly, Julia Piaton, Catherine Jacob, Richard Berry, Arie Elmaleh, Clementine Poidatz
Director: Myriam Aziza
We may not be aware of it in the UK, but French cinema is known for its comedies. Very few find their way to release in the UK, but with the French film industry the third largest in the world, churning out more films per year than any other European country, they are one of the few nations where home-grown content takes the larger share of audiences than that of Hollywood films. As a result, there are a lot of genuinely brilliant French comedies produced year on year… but also, just like Hollywood, there are ones that don’t make the grade. To Each Her Own, a French Netflix Original that debuted last weekend, falls somewhere in the middle.
Simone (Stern) is a lesbian. She’s also from a Jewish family. She has a gay brother, but due to her parents’ (Jacob & Berry) inability to accept his sexuality, she has not yet managed to come out, despite living with her partner Claire (Piaton) for three years. To dodge her parents trying to set her up with a “nice Jewish boy” she convinces her friend Geraldine (Poidatz) to masquerade as her on the dates, but doesn’t count on the pair actually falling in love. But elsewhere, she finds herself inexplicably attracted to Wali (Folly) a male Senegalese chef at her local bistro.
There’s a lot of storylines going on here. Any or each of these storylines could probably have filled an entire film, but it often feels like Simone is pin-balling between consecutive disasters, towering higher and higher like a game of emotional Jenga. While all of this increasing tension does consistently raise the stakes, there is just a little too much going on, because by the time she’s dipped her toe into all of the issues in turn, you find yourself forgetting completely about where she started.
The film’s biggest problem is probably how unlikeable Simone actually is. Completely incapable of standing up for herself, all of these situations are made progressively worse by her standing back and allowing them to happen. We can see her increasing frustration with herself, but she never really addresses this. When we finally get our climax, it’s less of a moment of empowerment and more of an out-of-character shock tactic that it’s hard to get behind, even for the most liberal-minded audiences. The territory it takes us toward in the final act is pretty unexpected (even if it is signposted midway through by a quasi-tragic hippy car-crash of a character, whose depiction as a joke makes the outcome all the less likely), while its characters’ compliance in it is pretty unexplained. Maybe I’m being naïve, but the foundations for the emotional complexity of the film’s denouement were simply not laid.
Essentially, the film is all about breaking conventions. It breaks the conventions of a Jewish family; it breaks the conventions of a Senegalese family; it breaks the conventions of relationships in general. There are various elongated sequences that revolve around a saucisson (yes it’s phallic, but it’s also pork), while the dialogue within the two families could almost have been written as an anthropological study of “how different cultures behave”. Neither Catherine Jacob nor Richard Berry are of Jewish origin, so their depiction of the Jewish parents feels exaggerated having not come from a place of personal experience. Jacob, especially, takes the role of the guilt-transferring matriarch into literal self-abuse as she beats her own face to demonstrate her upset with her children.
However, though there are problems with the film, it is still an entertaining comedy, with plenty of laughs peppered through the script. Geraldine, the best friend, is the most entertaining of the bunch, stealing pretty much every scene she’s in. Situational gags are set-up and accurately driven home, while the characters act as strong spring-boards for the comedy throughout. But without a sympathetic centre to make you will for their success, the pulse of this Netflix piece never really gets above resting-rate.
OUT NOW ON NETLFIX.