My Life With James Dean ****
Starring: Johnny Rasse, Mickaël Pelissier, Nathalie Richard, Juliette Damiens
Director: Dominique Choisy
There’s a commonly assumed stereotype in France that those living in the North of the country are somewhat… backwards. While Parisians are chic, the people in wine-country live the good life and people in the Riviera are flashy celebs, Northerners live windswept lives in backward seaside towns. Or so the stereotype denotes. My Live With James Dean is a fish-out-of-water story, in which south meets north and the stereotype is both propagated and then debunked. One of the most successful French movies of all time was the recent crowd-pleasing comedy Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis (Welcome To The North), which explored a very similar theme, but the tone of this movie couldn’t be any more different.
Géraud (Rasse) is an art-house filmmaker from Lyons. His movie ‘My Life With James Dean’ explores his teenage years, in which he convinced himself he was the rebellious Beat icon, James Dean. He is touring the film around small independent cinemas across the country and finds himself in a small coastal town in Normandy. Losing his phone on arrival, he arrives at the cinema to find the manager (Richard) missing and the staff knowing nothing about his screening. He drinks himself into a stupor and is left in the care of his peculiar bookish hotel manager (Damiens) and a young cinema usher (Pelissier) who falls head over heels in love with him. The following day, his arrival starts to bring together a disparate group of friends who all need each other’s help in some way, leaving Géraud perplexed about where he has found himself.
The more time that passes, the more you start to see the resemblance between Johnny Rasse and James Dean. The way he dresses; the long brooding looks; the extended pauses after which he doesn’t say what he really means; the way that he does what he wants without thinking of the consequences. Géraud is a quiet rebel, who presents himself with an IDGAF attitude (thank you Dua Lipa for entering this acronym into the vernacular) but without being inflammatory or offensive. He lets the world happen to him, without being complicit in its execution. In a late scene, we see him sat beside a seated cardboard cut-out of the Hollywood star, whose early demise has entrenched him in cinema iconoclasm. However, if you’re expecting a film riddled with references to the star, that’s about as far as it goes. The title here is a big fat metaphor.
Around this strong central performance is a clutch of quirky and fun characters. Richard’s Sylvia is a self-absorbed über-neurotic lesbian in love with the idea of love; Damiens’ Gladys is a literature obsessed reclusive dreamer; while Pelissier’s Balthazar is the most intense teenage lovesick puppy whose obsession goes beyond the remit of romance. With scores of others all entangled in a complex web of lusts and feelings, they end up following each other all over the town in farcical chase sequences, in which the amusing ensemble cast are pursuers pursuing the pursued, and vice versa.
Throughout the film, Géraud is told over and again that there is only an audience in the North for comedies and American action movies. His piece fits into neither of these categories and we get flashes of his film, which is an earnest coming-of-age gay sexual-awakening movie. Initially our film is pretty earnest too, but as his movie is put in front of wholly inappropriate audiences and the cat-and-mouse chases continue around the town, suddenly this too is both comedy and action film… or at least nods in the genres’ general directions, but I think the director has made his point. And while this certainly venerates James Dean in all his withdrawn aloofness, it also makes such a character as Géraud seem somewhat ridiculous when surrounded by the joys of reality. Yes, the people in this town are ridiculous, but in this setting they fit right in; it is Géraud’s standoffishness that seems the more ridiculous here.
As a comedy-drama, this ticks all the right boxes. The stereotype is rolled out, shown off, contradicted and then even manages to show Northern France in a positive light… which is saying something for French cinema! This won’t have you rolling in the aisles like Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis, but it’s a charming film with oodles of heart to spare.
OUT NOW ON DVD AND ON DEMAND.