A racist working girl gets a nasty taste of her own medicine in “Agathe Clery,” a Gallic rehash of Melvin Van Peebles’ “Watermelon Man” that’s also, for better or worse, a musical comedy. Ambitious production from writer-director Etienne Chatiliez — whose “Life Is a Long Quiet River” (1988) and “Tanguy” (2001) are local comic faves — features veteran thesp/standup star Valerie Lemercier in the titular role of a marketing exec who experiences a heavy dose of bigotry, humiliation and show-stopping dance numbers when her pigmentation changes. Curio item performed OK during early December release, but the buck may stop there.
Pic deserves kudos for tackling a sensitive local subject that’s only received peripheral treatment in commercial French cinema. And it adds an interesting (though bizarre) twist by including a slew of Broadway-style song-and-dance numbers with titles like “Besides That, She’s Not a Racist” and “Black Is Black.”
Early reels are more tuner-oriented than the second half, which extends the denouement longer than necessary and could have benefited from trimming. From the opening animated credits to the first massive choral sequence at Paris’ Gare du Nord train station, the pic’s wacky, Busby Berkeley-ish tone is set forth with extremely polished production values and scores of hopping extras.
Agathe Clery (Lemercier) is a fortysomething marketing specialist at a Parisian cosmetics company whose new line of beauty products, “Scandinavia,” is targeted toward perfectly white complexions. With her killer business ethic and occasional racist remarks, she’s the perfect gal for the job, and is quickly promoted by her smiling but sinister boss (the unbeatable Jean Rochefort).
Just when all seems to be going peachy keen, Agathe’s skin suddenly starts getting darker, and she’s soon diagnosed with a rare strain of Addison’s disease that will transform her from white to black in the course of a week.
After an extended bout of depression, she loses her job, her friends (Dominique Lavanant, Isabelle Nanty) and her milquetoast b.f. (Artus de Penguern). She’s soon forced to suffer the same consequences as other French or immigrant non-Caucasians, who are shunted out of the job and apartment markets by lots of politely underhanded refusals. Determined to fight back, she adopts a black-is-beautiful ethic, wearing flashy low-cut dresses and coiffing herself with an afro.
This is where the handling of the racism question by Chatiliez and regular co-writer Laurent Chouchan seems to go sour: Their character embraces popular Gallic stereotypes of blacks as the only viable solution to her predicament. A nightclub scene where a drunken Agathe tears up the dance floor like Donna Summer (although she actually dances to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” — a terrible choice) only adds to the squeamishness.
Lemercier manages to pull off the oddball comic and dance sequences with rigor and finesse. Tech work is highlighted by choreographer Molly Molloy’s creative ensemble numbers and d.p. Philippe Welt’s able camerawork. Music is mostly in the spirited Rodgers & Hammerstein tradition.