An improvised culture-clash comedy shot on digital video in the south of France with only a story outline, “The Chateau” represents a complete change of pace from Jesse Peretz’s 1997 debut, the brooding bayou drama “First Love, Last Rites.” While this amusing lark is more assured in its setup than its denouement, the director appears quite at ease working in a lighter register, and has a considerable asset in gifted lead Paul Rudd. Given the dark, underlit quality of the 35mm blowup premiered in Rotterdam, a return to the lab for reprocessing could boost the modest but engaging feature’s theatrical chances.
Story centers on wide-eyed, enthusiastic Kansas guy Graham (Rudd) and his cynical black adopted brother Alan (Romany Malco), who chooses to be called Rex because it’s cooler. The estranged siblings are brought together by the inheritance, from an uncle they didn’t know they had, of a chateau in southern France. During the trip down by train from Paris, the differences between them already are apparent, with sloppy, disorganized Graham gushing romantically about all things European and driven go-getter Rex glued to his cell phone, monitoring his e-business back in L.A.
The duo arrives at a vast, run-down estate, where communication problems immediately arise with the oddball live-in servants. These include gruff caretaker Pierre (Philippe Mahon), ingratiating butler Jean (Didier Flamand), opera-singing cook Sabine (Maria Verdi) and timid young maid Isabelle (Sylvie Testud), for whom both Graham and Rex compete.
All of them seem baffled by the brothers’ letter of inheritance, but they cautiously welcome the houseguests, breathing a sigh of relief that their positions will be secured by the new owners.
Recalling the “Absolutely Fabulous” episode about a Provencale holiday, much of the early comedy centers on language barriers. The blissful ignorance of American youth in assuming that the entire world is on the same cultural wavelength represents an easy target, but the cast nonetheless draws plenty of fresh, spontaneous humor from the situation.
It’s when the servants start to gain the upper hand and the plotting negotiates trickier turns that Peretz’s grasp is less firm and the action becomes repetitive. Upon learning that the chateau is mired in debt, the brothers decide to put it on the market. The servants’ alarm at being out of jobs and a home prompts soft-hearted Graham to promise a clause in the sale contract guaranteeing their positions. While the outcome could be more tidily achieved, the loose, unstructured quality represents both a limitation and an advantage, giving the film an unpolished appeal that distinguishes it from many more fatuously slick comedies. Some of the confrontations are beautifully played, in particular those between Testud and Rudd, who cautiously but curiously circle each other, communicating not just in different languages but seemingly from different planets.
Rudd’s comic timing and his depiction of a well-meaning but unworldly guy way out of his depth both are finely tuned. Newcomer Malco also hits the right notes with his aggressive, impatient characterization. Donal Logue has some funny moments as a rock-star planning to gut the chateau and have Philippe Starck redecorate.
Tom Richmond’s handheld camerawork generally serves the project’s serendipitous approach and the use of natural lighting helps convey the atmosphere of the grand but gloomy interiors. But the grainy murkiness of the visuals stands to be improved through further refinement of the 35mm blowup. Score by Nathan Larson, Patrik Bartosch and Nina Persson playfully echoes vintage French cinema.