God is Great and I’m Not
M O V I E    R E V I E W    B Y    D A V I D    G U R E V I C H

 
The 24-year-old French actress Audrey Tautou has made eight films so far, and four of them have received US distribution -- a near-impossible achievement for a foreign-born actress. She had a small but standing-out part, holding her own against formidable Nathalie Baye in Venus Beauty Institute; then was part of an ensemble in Happenstance; and finally the star in the extravagantly, dizzyingly off-the-wall Amelie. And I mean the star. With her gamine haircut and mischievous eyes, she grabbed the screen and ran away with it. Do you really remember anything or anyone else in that movie but Mlle.Tautou's smile? Her new comedy, God Is Great, I'm Not, is a loose translation of the French title Dieu est grand, et Je suis toute petite -- "God is great, and I'm so small." Well, I'd call it, Audrey Is Great, and the Film is So Small.

The role fits Mlle.Tautou like a glove: the film covers three years in the life of Michele, a 20-year-old Parisian model who is, er, looking for herself. When we meet her, Michele has just broken up with her boyfriend, who didn't want her to have a baby. Gosh. Not to make fun of abortion, but we all know how solemnly the subject would have been tackled in your average TV movie-of-the-week, whose makers carry their political agendas on the spines of their scripts. But Michele is only twenty, she has energy and curiosity to spare, and the world is still wide open -- all she needs is to find the right drummer to march to. Watching her strictly dysfunctional mother (a classy turn by Catherine Jacob) with her stepfather is enough to turn anybody away from Catholicism. So our gamine plunges into Buddhism; but at twenty, it's not so much what God you pray to as who of the opposite sex is praying next to you. So when she realizes that a handsome vet doctor who pursues her is Jewish, she goes bang! Send in the rabbis, hang your mezuzahs, and burn the leftovers before Seder. With the fervor of this new convert into Judaism burning as bright as the menorah, you will not find yourself riding a cab on Shabbat and you will not have a chicken drumstick on Yom Kippur.

I'm not sure about the French, but to an American audience this terrain is well-trodden, and it is a credit to the screenwriter/director Pascale Bailly that she puts a fresh Gallic spin on this tired plot. Her Jewish doctor (a vet yet, still a dreamboat to a Jewish mother) is understandably confused and somewhat turned off. Francois (Edouard Baer) is a "normal" non-observant urban Jew in the Upper West Side mode, with a few hang-ups that would not be out of place in a Woody Allen movie. In fact, the whole concept is totally (young) Woody Allen, with a crucial difference: we observe it from Michele's point of view, and with her utter irresistibility. Whether she is trying to hang up the mezuzah upside down or lighting her cigarette off the said menorah, we cannot help being irritated by Francois's endless neurotic hang-ups. Unlike in Woody's case, they are not funny.

What is funny and touching and heartbreaking is Michele's seriousness and devotion as she struggles with ancient words and rituals. Is she motivated by her love for Francois or a desire to belong to the world's oldest (and hard as nails) monotheistic religion? No reason to quibble, the film says: just watch Mlle. Tautou's eyes as they go from a shining smile to welling up with tears and back to smiling all within fractions of a second. Her eyes will provide you with the best evidence that God is Love and Love is God, and separating the two is a fool's errand, just as the direction that smoothly, seamlessly weaves together comedy and drama -- something that the French are so good at, and Americans, always reaching for a correct sociopolitical angle, will never learn.

And there's plenty of a socio-politico-psychology here: Francois' parents have lost their parents and numerous siblings in the Holocaust, and his numerous hang-ups are attributable to the Holocaust's grim heritage as well. The recent outbursts of anti-Semitism in France make this film a curiosity: evidently, for the French, only a certain type of a Jew -- a cultured, intellectual Witness to History -- is acceptable (remember the protagonist's wunderkind classmate in Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants?). Perhaps there is not much anti-Semitism on the Left Bank for now -- though with the Third-World issues dominating the French left, those days are numbered; but what about the poor, non-intellectual Jews who work as bus drivers and watch TV soaps? Well (a Gallic shrug), that's another story. And -- true -- it's another movie. With Matthieu Kassowitz, maybe.

Going back to God Is Great, I'm Not, the title can be interpreted as a direct quote from the Koran, and at the end, unhappy after her brush with Judaism, Michele is walking down the street past a woman wearing a chador. Considering that the screen title (way too cute) says, To Be Continued, what are we to make of it? Will Michele's insatiable spiritual quest lead her into a fundamentalist mosque (in France, there's more of those than synagogues, after all)? Well, I'm prepared to pray to any God that would listen -- please. Don't allow this to happen. We can't afford to have a smile like this locked up under the chador.

On a serious note, I wonder what's next for Mlle. Tautou. How far will her smile take her? Sure she can light up even a minor film like this one, but age takes no prisoners. Only time can tell, as the pundits say solemnly; but for now Audrey is a fine reason to enjoy God Is Great, I'm Not.

 

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Mars Films (France)
Movie Web site: Dieu est grand, je suis toute petite (France)

Photo credits: © 2002 Empire Pictures. All rights reserved.