An irrationally self-assured loser falls hard for a woman way out of his league in “Charming Fellow.” Helming debut by vet actor Patrick Chesnais, who also co-wrote and stars, is refreshingly wacky and unpredictable en route to a pleasing twist. A low-key but well-received release on home turf, this consistently inventive, borderline nasty and slightly kamikaze riff on “opposites attract” is a nifty fest item that sustains an off-kilter universe all its own.
Lanky fiftysomething Octave (Chesnais) is nothing to look at, lives with his pot-smoking mother (Micheline Presle, in a delightful turn) and is saddled with two equally washed-up best friends, Hector (Jean-Francois Balmer) and Achille (Bernard Crombey). They devote enormous attention to their flashy suits and play passable jazz together. Octave’s litany of ongoing complaints ranges from an abscessed tooth to his too-tight new boots.
But when he spots effortlessly classy Esther (Alexandra Vandernoot) at the wheel of her pricey auto, Octave deliberately crashes into her to make her acquaintance. They have nothing in common. He’s a shleppy guy from the working class ‘burbs and she’s a beautiful, well-connected mosaic artist with a gorgeous loft and a well-groomed boyfriend (Samuel Labarthe).
Octave continues to barge into her orderly life, scaring her silly but making her laugh. One tactic: Octave hails a cab, then exits just long enough to leap into the Seine. Once out of the water, he rings Esther’s doorbell and tells her the taxi sank in the river but he saved himself and the driver. He proceeds to strip and hop into Esther’s bed.
From cheap-dive fisticuffs and tawdry drug deals to the corridors of Parisian power and influence, this unlikely blend hangs together and entertains. In its affection for its actors and its strange brand of stubborn behavior, pic is a Gallic cousin to the wonderfully crafted 1996 sleeper “Palookaville” or to classic Alan Rudolph.
Ornery, histrionic but unswervingly sure of himself, Chesnais is utterly disarming in his tenaciousness. Vandernoot affects exactly the right tone as the slumming princess, and Balmer is adorable as a guy who has no trouble with fancy vocabulary but can’t remember ordinary words like “table” and “jacket.”
Score moves nicely from opera to jazz in the same way pic straddles low-rent frustration and high-class entitlement. Lensing communicates the gap between haves and have-nots with efficient strokes.