Echoes of Jean Renoir and Robert Altman ring through the wings of "Sunny Spells," a captivating backstage dramedy set during France's annual Avignon Theater Festival.

Echoes of Jean Renoir and Robert Altman ring through the wings of “Sunny Spells,” a captivating backstage dramedy set during France’s annual Avignon Theater Festival. Debut feature by mono-monikered playwright Diasteme, with co-scripting by Christophe Honore (“Love Songs”), is a finely crafted, gracefully thesped chamber piece that tracks several lovesick actors, actresses, dancers and musicians — and one lonely technician — as they cross paths and trade emotional baggage during a jam-packed July week. Modest in size but ambitious in scope, pic should be a shoo-in with theater fans and could even find some encores in arthouses outside Gaul.

Richard (Bruno Todeschini), a successful playwright traumatized by the recent death of his wife, arrives in Avignon accompanied by a kooky theater groupie (Linh-Dan Pham). Unable to sit through a performance of his highly autobiographical work, he spends the fest hanging out with stars Maud (Emma de Caunes) and Alex (Frederic Andrau), who play a quarrelsome couple onstage while breaking up for real behind the scenes.

Another sequence introduces depressed vaudeville singer Louise (Jeanne Rosa) and her pianist sidekick Lena (Judith el-Zein), two artsy gals trying to make themselves known. They soon team up with Bruno (Olivier Marchal, helmer of recent policiers “MR 73″ and “36 Quai des Orfevres”), a sweet but sad theater technician who takes a liking to Lena early on.

On the fancier side of town, choreographer and dancer Kate (Lea Drucker) is having problems putting together her much-anticipated performance piece. She’s assisted — in more ways than one — by Marko (played by contempo theater creator Olivier Py), whose sexuality is thrown into disarray by the new affair.

Pic’s midsection follows different narrative strands as the festival rumbles on and the characters begin meeting up, sometimes through chance, sometimes through professional connections. In an extended party finale, joie de vivre triumphs over desolation.

Like Renoir in “The Golden Coach” and Altman in “Nashville” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” Diasteme meticulously tracks his thesps in front of and behind the curtain, allowing performance and reality to meld into one tireless, engaging spectacle. Through tight scripting and editing that manage to leave plenty of room for song and dance, he successfully disperses his network narrative among eight different protags, who all receive equally intensive screen treatment.

Engaging perfs, especially by Drucker, de Caunes and Andrau, seem to draw much from improv and the pleasure of mixing theater arts with more realistic film acting. Intimate lensing by Philippe Guilbert keeps the action focused on the performers, with a few outdoor sequences giving glimpses of the street life surrounding the fest. Editing by Chantal Hymans is expertly paced.

Sunny Spells

France

Production

A Rezo Films release of a Cipango production, in association with Soficinema 3, with participation of Canal Plus, TPS Star, La Banque Postale Image, La Region Provence Alpes Cote d'Azur. (International sales: Rezo, Paris.) Produced by Thomas Anargyros, Edouard de Vessine. Directed by Diasteme. Screenplay, Diasteme, Christophe Honore.

Crew

Camera (color), Philippe Guilbert; editor, Chantal Hymans; music, Szymon Brzoska; production designer, Riton Dupire-Clement; costume designer, Frederic Cambier; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Nicolas Favre, Thierry Delor; choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; casting, Richard Rousseau. Reviewed at UGC Cine Cite Les Halles 15, Paris, July 17, 2008. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Bruno Todeschini, Emma de Caunes, Lea Drucker, Olivier Marchal, Linh-Dan Pham, Olivier Py, Jeanne Rosa, Judith el-Zein, Frederic Andrau.
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