Lionel Baier's period comedy delights in film history, but feels too forced and artificial in its striving for 1970s screwball vibe.
The humor is more than a touch too local in the first half of “Longwave,” though things improve during the second part of Lionel Baier’s comedy about a Swiss Radio crew caught up in Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution. The chameleon-like helmer once again demonstrates his thoroughgoing knowledge of and delight in film history, yet his striving for a 1970s screwball vibe feels too forced and artificial, torn between homage and a wink-wink sensibility. Films Boutique has reported brisk sales for Latin America, and while “Longwave” has scattered moments of genuine amusement, its hyper-localized funny bone isn’t an ideal transplant candidate.
Baier has a healthy sense of humor about his countrymen, given free rein in this farce when an unlikely duo of radio personalities are paired on assignment to report on Swiss investment in Portugal, a country described as “less developed than we are, but still nice.” Julie (Valerie Donzelli) hosts a feminist talkshow that she wants more airtime for, and Cauvin (Michel Vuillermoz) is a seasoned reporter forever reminding colleagues of his battle-scarred resume. He’s looking to pump up the assignment’s importance, while she sees it as a chance to earn brownie points with the network; their chalk-and-cheese pairing makes for predictable friction, with veteran driver/sound guy Bob (Patrick Lapp) acting as soothing buffer.
Once in Portugal, they discover that Swiss generosity has been less than successful. Cauvin’s refusal to acknowledge the depths of his incompetent Portuguese leads them to hire a translator named Pele (Francisco Belard), a young man whose Marseilles-inflected French derives from his love for the films of Marcel Pagnol. Just when they’re resigned to coming home empty-handed, they realize a revolution is going on and head to Lisbon to get the scoop for Swiss Radio. Caught up in the heady atmosphere of political and sexual liberation, the four become energized and shed their rigidity.
Baier (“Another Man”) strives hard to re-create the style and tone of comedies from the era, and his general avoidance of postmodernist superiority is unquestionably refreshing. Yet his quest for jokey verisimilitude has too much of a phony, staged quality, milking laughs out of, for example, tangled telephone cords (oh, those quaint devices of yesteryear). Certain joke strands, such as Julie’s deeply Swiss need to have everyone vote on all decision making, are best appreciated by viewers in the cantons, while others, such as Cauvin’s ongoing massacre of his host’s language, wear thin after a few outings.
An incongruous dance number during the revolution has a sweet feel and harks back to musicals from the period, yet its one-off nature leaves auds wanting more — a full-blown musical from the cine-literate Baier, in the manner of Christophe Honore, could be a welcome addition to his oeuvre. It certainly would be less stilted than the cutesy iris shots and split screens.
Most appealing is Baier’s sensitivity to music, always a key element in his films. Here he’s immersed in George Gershwin, especially “Porgy and Bess,” and the jazz-inflected tracks, with their intimations of drama, provide an aural meatiness not frequently matched by the action.
Locarno Film Review: 'Longwave'
Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande), Aug. 10, 2013. Running time: 85 MIN. Original title: "Les Grandes ondes (a l’ouest)"