A fantasy-laced look at how a mass-market author or a popular song can brighten a mundane existence, “Odette Toulemonde” is an adorable slice of magical realism that thumbs its cinematic nose at the intelligentsia. Catherine Frot positively glows as the title character, a widowed working mother whose cheerful outlook is sustained by her bottomless enthusiasm for the books of a Parisian novelist. The urban sophisticate and the fan from the Belgian sticks illuminate each other’s lives in unlikely ways. Local hit, scripted by accomplished playwright and first-time helmer Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, is a charmer for fests and perhaps more.
Odette, who works in a department store outside Brussels, has little to be cheerful about, except perhaps her well-adjusted, 19-year-old gay son, Rudy (Fabrice Murgia), a hairdresser. Sue Helen (Nina Drecq), Odette’s dour older daughter, can’t find work. Both kids still live at home, with their boyfriends semi-permanent impositions.
When not manning the cosmetics counter, Odette supplements her income by sewing feathers and sequins late into the evening. And yet, she’s a happy dynamo — bubbly but not saccharine, with a can-do gumption.
At pic’s outset, pushing-50 Odette is beside herself with excitement. She leaves work early, dresses up and takes the bus from her provincial Belgian town to Brussels. There, Balthazar Balsan (Albert Dupontel, spot-on), the author she worships from afar, will be signing books.
When her turn comes, Odette is so tongue-tied she ends up with a faulty dedication. Rudy, always supportive, suggests his mom write a letter expressing her admiration. So, Odette pens her grateful thoughts, explaining to Balsan, with unpretentious and unaffected glee, how his books have helped her, well, live.
When Odette is caught up in Balsan’s prose, her body literally rises off her seat on the bus, so overpowering is her elation. Throughout pic, whenever Odette is unbearably happy, she finds herself floating skyward, like a contempo Mary Poppins sans umbrella.
In a moment of intense doubt, Balsan reads the missive. And in a development as charming as it is far-fetched, he drives from France to Belgium in search of his admirer.
Odette brims with common sense, but she’s the polar opposite of an intellectual. Her apartment is a monument to frilly lowbrow taste. Balsan is looking for a complete change of pace, and he gets it.
Prominent playwright and author Schmitt, whose “Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran” was adapted into an Omar Sharif starrer in 2003, frequently employs an angel’s-eye p.o.v., benevolently looking down at his struggling, striving characters.
With a song on her lips and a bounce in her step, heartland B.O. draw Frot embodies, without a trace of condescension, the unheralded army of shop clerks, cashiers and concierges who harbor unsophisticated but genuine dreams.
Augmented by French ditties performed by Josephine Baker, the score by Nicola Piovani is a vital, beautifully interwoven component of the proceedings. The fanciful surname Toulemonde translates as “everybody,” as in “John and Jane Doe aplenty.”