Last of the summer foie gras

Jardins en Automne (Otar Iosseliani, 2006)

A lucky dip from the selection at work. Its director is a Georgian and a dissident of communism who has worked in France since the early 1980s. He’s a disciple of Tati, with whom I’ve never got on, and they call this film surrealist. I’d say it’s more absurdist; the surreal elements are more in the gentle, teasing vein of 70s Bunuel than an attempt to declare war on conventional values. It started very well, then it lost me.

The film opens with death. Handmade artisan coffins are in various states of completion in a workshop-cum-showroom. The workmen greet a constant stream of old men walking in to browse the wares. Excuse me, is this one pine or oak? Three men spot a coffin at the same time, and fight over who should be allowed to buy it. A strong and funny beginning.

Next we meet our hero, Vincent (though it’s half an hour before we catch his name). A mild-mannered man in late middle age with a faint resemblance to Chirac, he appears to be a minor government minister. He gives a medal to a dwarf and cuts the ribbon to open a petting zoo, full of mooing cows and donkeys. In Africa, his jeep is surrounded by natives with spears and red robes. He exchanges gifts with the local chief, giving a rifle and receiving a toucan in a cage. The toucan’s bewildered, out-of-place look reminds us of Bunuel’s ostrich from The Phantom of Liberty.

Vincent’s strawberry-blonde mistress purchases a ostentatious grecian statue and has it delivered to their palatial grace-and-favour apartment. The camera roams through open-plan rooms which are so scattered with clothes rails, ornaments and bric-a-brac that they look like backstage at a pantomime theatre. She continues her singing lesson whilst showing the delivery men where to leave the statue. When Vincent arrives he tucks a few banknotes into the pianist’s blazer pocket.

A man arrives outside Vincent’s office for an appointment and is told to take a seat. A busy procession of administrators, cleaners, &c. cross the screen. Vincent’s phone continues to ring as the camera enters his office. He and his adviser are drinking wine, playing cards, and ignoring the phone. The office has huge chandeliers and gold-pannelled walls, plus that toucan. Eventually they place a map of Africa over the card game and sit at their desk to receive the guest. We think once more of The Phantom of Liberty– the surreptitious thrill of sneaking behind closed doors and seeing authority figures behave like naughty schoolboys.

The sound of a boisterous crowd can be heard from the streets. It grows gradually louder, to the apparent indifference of Vincent who strolls into the room off his office; full of gymnasium equipment. His mistress arrives, pours herself some wine and puts her feet up on his desk. A brief exchange reveals Vincent’s fatalistic outlook, one which makes him an unlikely government minister:

“Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Of course I mind it. But what can I do about it?”

Cut straight to the demonstration outside, which demonstrates that Vincent’s worldview is somewhat at odds with the world in which we live. We are given no explanation of what the strike is about or the extent of Vincent’s culpability, but a few officials arrive and give him a letter of resignation to sign, which he does with a shrug and good grace. As he leaves, his car is pelted with tomatoes. He leaves the office to his successor, a fat, toadish man with a surly face and a pet cheetah. His mistress leaves him for the bald, Capaldi-esque battleaxe who fired him; this is nicely conveyed as he turns up at the empty apartment to see the statue disappear in the back of a pick-up truck.

After half an hour of these excellent set-up scenes, I was settling in to watch an irreverent film of spot-on satire. But the film lost its way and bored me. Vincent readjusts to civilian life, is welcomed back by his old friends, and finds that life off the gravy train isn’t so bad at all. There are some great moments; Michel Piccoli plays Vincent’s mum, in a Widow Twankey costume, and is accepted by the entire cast as his mum. He has to ask her for his PIN codes, spare keys. Vincent’s old apartment has been taken over by an extended African family of squatters, who empty their bedpans onto his head as he stands in the street.

There are many convivial, communal meals between Vincent and his friends, who gently rib him (“We hear you’re a mere mortal again”). His estranged ex-wife is still on the scene and he meets a multitude of pretty young lovers with little effort. He takes up the piano and guitar. Two of his friends are Orthodox priests who throw boisterous all-night parties, and laugh in the face of neighbours who threaten to call the police. There’s another hour and a half of this and there really doesn’t need to be. Paris looks beautiful but I felt altogether disconnected, that the film had made its point and Vincent’s jolly life was drifting along aimlessly.

In the end it becomes circular. Vincent joins his old pal to work as a gardener. The rioters turn out yet again, Vincent’s successor is sacked and he sees the bald boss on a bus; suggesting a more thorough reshuffle this time around. The successor turns up at Vincent’s park in a daze. As his friends did for him, Vincent sits him down, hands him a cigarette and a hip flask, and reassures him that everything will be fine.

The DVD had a lengthy interview with the director, in which he confirmed that he belives democracy to be as ineffective as any other system. “The masses sack everyone, and vote in people who are even worse- but the masses never have to apologise to anyone”. He approved of Vincent’s belief that it’s futile to try to change anything, and that life should be lived in laziness and simple pleasures. He was at pains to play down the casting of Piccoli, saying that the casting of a star actor ruins a film (“Your film simply becomes a necklace for Catherine Deneuve”). Heigh ho.


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August 2009
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