Review: ‘Absolument Fabuleux’

Depending on your devotion to the original cult BBC series affectionately shortened to "AbFab," France's feature-length answer, "Absolument fabuleux" is either Absolutely Adequate or Positively Awful.

Depending on your devotion to the original cult BBC series affectionately shortened to “AbFab,” France’s feature-length answer, “Absolument fabuleux” is either Absolutely Adequate or Positively Awful. Trim, man-eating lush Patsy (Nathalie Baye) and chubby, single mom-cum-fashion magnate Eddie (Josiane Balasko) stumble through Paris guzzling champagne and refusing to grow up with the stunted determination cultivated in bonsai trees. Colorful local marketing campaign fueled peppy initial results in Gaul but upon closer examination this concoction — like mixing pills and booze — is a pretty bad idea.

Helmer Gabriel Aghion — whose work to date (“What a Drag!”, “Belle Maman,” “The Libertine” are the last three) has suggested a gay sensibility the way Mount Everest suggests height — uses overstatement like it’s going out of style. But he has yet to demonstrate any talent for the slow burn, ironic witticism or, indeed, subtlety of any kind.

Whether international fans of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French’s original creation will find this French-lingo variation surprisingly apt or scandalously misguided, the broads spouting broad humor between liquor-fueled pratfalls and self-centered utterances are intact. Pic takes the ultra-British details and makes them 100% French.

Eddie — here short for Edith, rather than Edina — lives in a trendy loft in the Bastille district where she stumbles out of bed at an advanced hour while her prim 21-year-old daughter, Safrane (Marie Gillain), is studying like mad for a notoriously selective university.

Though the basic template is filled in with Gallic specifics, the concept of political correctness in health matters does not translate well to France, where there still is nothing inherently unacceptable about smoking up a storm, imbibing around the clock and having casual, unprotected sex with men half one’s age.

Any viewer with a genuine ’60s pedigree will realize things aren’t quite right during the “Zelig”-like opening credits. After amusingly placing our heroines into newsreel footage of the May ’68 student revolution, the words “Woodstock ’69” are followed by footage of, uh, the Mamas & the Papas singing “California Dreamin.’ ” Latter perf occurred at the Monterey Pop fest two years prior, so it’s like saying the Beatles performed on Johnny Carson instead of “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Pic has no narrative to speak of, just a rough assemblage of incidents. Eddie turns 50, lands the makeover contract for real-life French icon Chantal Goya and convinces a well-known talkshow host (Stephane Bern, as himself) to have Patsy on as a guest. Meanwhile, a series of mildly amusing misunderstandings keep straight-arrow Safrane and spirited delivery boy Jonathan (Vincent Elbaz) apart.

Goya — a sort of human Barney to the French toddler crowd, and now well past her cutesy prime — is an exceedingly good sport about sending up her erstwhile image. Balasko is clumsy and crass, while Baye does her best to inhabit a role that’s all surface. While she’s far too pretty to play Eddie’s brainy, virginal daughter, Gillain is very good as a stern young lady forced to humor her juvenile mother’s lifelong weakness for instant gratification. Elbaz spends a bit too much of his screen time on roller blades.

Viewers who swoon at the idea of a Jean-Paul Gaultier runway show attended by — gasp! — Catherine Deneuve and Jennifer Saunders will enjoy a clutzily executed sequence. And when helmer Aghion just stays out of the way and permits his players to luck into some comic timing of their own, there are some belly laughs to be had.

Scattershot soundtrack includes a French version of the original theme song that certainly could catch on in dance clubs.

Absolument Fabuleux

France

Production

A Bac Distribution release of a Mosca Films, StudioCanal, TF1 Films Prods., Sans Contrefacon Prods., Josy Films production, with participation of Canal Plus and Bac Films. (International sales: UGC Intl., Paris.) Produced by Pascal Houzelot. Directed by Gabriel Aghion. Screenplay, Aghion, Francois-Olivier Rousseau, Remi Waterhouse, Pierre Palmade, based on the BBC-TV series "Absolutely Fabulous" created by Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French.

Crew

Camera (color), Francois Catonne; editor, Maryline Monthieux; production designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier; art director, Olivier Radot; costume designer, Olivier Beriot; sound (Dolby), Brigitte Taillandier, Vincent Arnardi; assistant director, Thomas Trefouel; casting, Gerard Moulevrier. Reviewed at UGC Odeon, Paris, Aug. 29, 2001. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Eddie - Josiane Balasko
Patsy - Nathalie Baye
Safrane - Marie Gillain
Jonathan - Vincent Elbaz
With: Claude Gensac, Yves Renier, Said Taghmaoui, Chantal Goya, Stephane Bern, Armelle.
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