A surprise B.O. smash in France, Thomas Gilou’s latest ensembler treads a minefield of potentially offensive caricature to deliver a feel-good male-bonding comedy set among the Sephardic Jews of the Sentier, Paris’ garment district. Affectionately lampooning a fast-talking, flashy world of exuberant young wholesalers at work and play, “Would I Lie to You?” attempts to hide its narrative ploys of mistaken identity and impossible romance behind a screen of loud local color and insider religious gags. The latter combo has proved irresistible to French auds primed for a Sentier spoof by decades of ethnic standup and TV talkshow shtick, but offshore viewers may see only an uneven and fairly predictable tale of macho pranksters in an unusual setting.
With this sendup of Sephardic insularity, Gilou continues his risky itinerary as eccentric ethnographer of France’s minorities. His “Black Mic-Mac,” an amusing 1986 critical hit about the survival strategies of Paris’ African immigrants, was followed in 1995 by the tragicomic but ultimately unconvincing “Rai,” a tale of French-Arab toughs unwisely released in the shadow of Mathieu Kassovitz’s “Hate.” With “Lie,” Gilou mines a mother lode almost untouched in French film since Alexandre Arcady’s “Le grand pardon,” a 1981 Sephardic crime epic that was a blatant rip-off of “The Godfather.”
The rags-to-riches story centers on Eddie (Richard Anconina), a drifter hired by Sentier patriarch and wholesale fabric dealer Victor (played by a dignified Richard Bohringer). Victor mistakenly thinks Eddie is a fellow Jew, and the latter has enough chutzpah to keep quiet about his origins. Soon the once-shiftless Eddie shows a knack for business and rises through the ranks from stockroom boy to salesman. In the process, he earns the friendship of a quartet of young Sentier hustlers who take him out to the deafeningly loud restaurants and discos frequented by their kith and kin in conspicuous consumption and over-the-top emotional outbursts.
Much comic mileage is made of Eddie’s attempts to pretend he’s Jewish at a Sabbath meal and of the antics of his new acquaintances, particularly the almost hyperventilating Serge Benamou, an unstoppable but unsuccessful dealmaker played flawlessly by Jose Garcia. Inevitably, it turns out that boss Victor has a beautiful princess of a daughter, Sandra (Amira Casar), whom the besotted Eddie decides to pry from the clutches of the unscrupulous Maurice (Anthony Delon). To do this, Eddie sets up his own business in the Sentier and, improbably, strikes it rich.
In addition to Garcia’s hapless Benamou and the lovely Casar as the object of Eddie’s attentions, Gilou’s romp through the garment district is well served by a strong young cast. Stock vulgarian characters are ably portrayed, with the only truly surprising comic invention being Elie Kakou’s Rafi Stylmod, a weird nebbish of a designer given to making execrable fashion statements. In this, he is expertly seconded in costume and production design by, respectively, Marie-Jose Escolar and Olivier Raoux. Jean-Jacques Bouhon’s dynamic lensing nicely counterpoints the sometimes manic pacing.
Helmer Gilou’s sure hand at directing a large and exuberant crowd of thesps, already evident in “Rai,” will no doubt attract even more notice given the profound echo the pic has found among younger French viewers. Other ethnic and religious minorities throughout France must be shuddering at the thought of the fearless young satirist turning his attention to them.