In Her Hands

Mathieu plays the train station piano

Two Brits starring in a French film. In Her Hands (Au bout des doigts in French) didn’t get a theatrical release in the UK or the US, so if the strategy was to guarantee anglosphere box-office action by casting Lambert Wilson and Kristin Scott Thomas (both of whom speak fluent French), it clearly hasn’t worked. The film did get some exposure in Canada (plenty of French speakers) and Australia, where it was called In Your Hands.

Perhaps that’s all a bit of red herring, because, though Wilson and Scott Thomas’s names come up first in the screen credits, it’s actually Jules Benchetrit who’s the star here. In his first major role, Benchetrit plays the moody wrong-side-of-the-tracks juvenile with a great gift – a natural talent for the piano.

The action opens with Mathieu (Benchetrit) playing Bach brilliantly on one of those pianos that now adorn big railway stations and being effectively discovered by Pierre Geithner (Wilson), a professor at a snooty conservatoire for classical music.

After a bit of plot shenanigans, things get going properly with Mathieu, all mid-finger attitude and scowls, at the conservatoire, where he is to be entered into an international competition. Just to add some jeopardy, Geithner’s job is on the line if Mathieu fails to win.

Kid with a raw talent being encouraged – in spite of himself – towards great things. The arc is Good Will Hunting (freely acknowledged by writers Johanne and Ludovic Bernard, who also directs), or Billy Elliot, or Star Wars, come to that.

Mentioning Star Wars only to drop it immediately on the grounds that it’s too heavy to lift, a Good Will Hunting or Billy Elliot needs a Robin Williams/Julie Walters mentor figure who is going to be stern but loving, exasperated and delighted, drained and sustained by the experience of tutoring this raw, wild and self-doubting talent.

Lambert Wilson with Jules Benchetrit
Lambert Wilson with Jules Benchetrit

Enter Kristin Scott Thomas as Mathieu’s piano teacher. I’m guessing Scott Thomas is playing an English woman since the Bernards have named her Elizabeth Buckingham, a joke about the sort of broom-handle roles Scott Thomas tends to be offered, surely?

Anyway, “la comtesse”, as she’s known (ironically?), gets to work, huffing to Mathieu’s puffing, rolling her eyes to his flounces, and nudging, cajoling and urging this piano genius into the light with method, discipline and technique.

Perhaps in an early draft the Wilson character and the Scott Thomas character were one and the same. As it works out, the film is interested in Pierre Geithner personally (his home life, his wife, his dead son), and takes no interest whatsoever in Elizabeth Buckingham outside the conservatoire. Though both Scott Thomas and Wilson are excellent in their roles, even their total commitment can’t hide the fact that one of their characters has no real reason to be here.

Still, Benchetrit can paper over that crack, can’t he? Sadly not. He’s a handsome man but there’s only so much any actor can do and Benchetrit’s lack of interiority counts against him. He only really comes alive in scenes with Karidja Touré, the joyous, gifted actor playing his cellist girlfriend Anna.

If you watched only the beginning and end of this film you’d be convinced that this was a familiar but entirely satisfying story, told with economy and hitting all the targets dead on. But that would be to miss the central section, when things become very sluggish. As well as superfluous characters clogging things up, odd plot details have been introduced only to be almost immediately dropped again. Mathieu prangs a tendon in his hand, for instance, only for it not to be mentioned again. He falls out with Anna, and then seems to be back with her, also without much explanation.

Some plaque in the arteries then, which dissolves every time Mathieu sits down to play the piano. From that opening Bach piece to the performance of Rachmaninoff 2 that’s the film’s showcase climax, the music is exquisite throughout. Take a bow Jennifer Fichet, who did the actual playing. If only she’d done a bit more.

In Her Hands also (confusingly) known as In Your Hands – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

In the House

Claude and Esther

If you’ve seen 5X2, you’ll already know that François Ozon makes immensely clever and highly entertaining films, and that there’s a point to the cleverness; he’s not just showing off. In the House, aka Dans La Maison, is Ozon to the bone, another very clever piece of work. This time, however, the point he’s making is far less immediately obvious.

5X2 was a love story played out backwards, the point being that, “forearmed” as we were with the knowledge that the relationship would crumble, we saw the couple in question’s first stirrings of love, courtship, marriage, honeymoon and so on through entirely different eyes. Here Ozon plays a similar trick, taking a Cuckoo in the Nest plot and wrapping it up in an examination of fiction and truth.

Fabrice Luchini plays Germain Germain, a jaded teacher of French who is wading through the marking of “what I did at the weekend” essays one night when he comes across something submitted by one of his pupils. It’s a startling story of how Claude, one of his teenage charges, courted fellow pupil Rapha, so he could gain access to the boy’s house, where he seems to have been leering after the kid’s mother Esther, (played by Emmanuelle Seigner). Unsettled, the teacher shows his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) the unusual and seemingly confessional essay. She is as intrigued as he, but also appalled. Next day the teacher upbraids the boy for his stalking, who instead of backing down hands him the next instalment of the story, which ends, like the first one, with “A suivre…” (to be continued).

Aagainst his better judgment, the teacher reads on, and becomes completely, becoming not just an avid follower of the boy’s increasingly lurid exploits (is he going to seduce the mother? the son? surely not the father?), not just his literary mentor, but also, bit by bit, an agent provocateur. Ozon symbolises this brilliantly, by having Luchini suddenly popping up inside the boy’s retelling of his story to offer pointers.

Claude and Germain
Claude and Germain?

Inside this vicious circle or feedback loop, on the one hand there’s a Damien tale of a monster inside a humdrum middle class family’s life. On the other there’s the teacher’s reactions to that story, and the effect his reactions have on the development of the boy’s story. And all the while the boy’s story is progressively taking over the teacher’s life. Fact and fiction become hopelessly intertwined, with the only seeming certainty being that, as is said several times, “the world needs stories”.

There is a student essay in here for someone with an interest in structuralism or deconstruction (both of which more or less take the view that nothing is certain or natural and that everything is made up – it’s all a big story).

For those of a more pragmatic, empirical nature, this is also a highly entertaining bit of farce, with Luchini perfectly cast – all hangdog one second, raised eyebrow the next – as the teacher in beyond the elbow, an invert of the Lolita figure of Humbert Humbert having rings run around him by an “innocent” kid. Ernst Umhauer plays the teenager, cleverer by far than his teacher, an inspired bit of casting – creepy, smooth skinned, attractive, with a hint of a smile that could be amusement or malice. Bisexual? Maybe. Unsettling is Ozon’s intention, I suspect, and Umhauer is certainly that.

Everyone else, including Scott Thomas and Emmanuelle Seigner, is a footnote. Apart, that is, from the father of the dolt, also called Rapha, played as a man so charged up with manly testosterone by Denis Ménochet, as so “natural” and unmediated in his actions and reactions that he stands in complete contradiction to the fey “everything is fictional” posturing of everyone else. And that, surely, is the point of Ozon’s film – there is fiction, there is fact and if we lose the distinction, we’re lost. French philosophers of the post 1968 tradition take note.

In the House – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012