The characters in the loquacious Gallic dramedy “Cherchez Hortense” aren’t looking for Hortense so much as for ways to survive a stagnant marriage, and for the courage to deal with things they would prefer to ignore. Helmer Pascal Bonitzer, screenwriter for Andre Techine and Jacques Rivette, here hews closer to the gentle humanism of the former, even if this well-acted feature lacks the emotional and thematic density of Techine’s best work. With lead turns by Jean-Pierre Bacri and Kristin Scott Thomas, this could do respectable arthouse numbers at home and reach select offshore venues.
Bacri, best known Stateside for his roles in Agnes Jaoui’s equally talky dissections of Parisian intellectuals (“The Taste of Others,” “Look at Me”), here stars as Damien, who teaches Asian culture and customs at a business school. The only thing he still really shares with his theater-director wife, Iva (Scott Thomas), is the care of their bespectacled, perpetually worried young son (Marin Orcand Tourres).
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The demanding Iva has asked her absent-minded hubby to talk to his dad (Claude Rich), who works at the Council of State (France’s highest advisory body), about the case of a foreigner, Zorica, who could be expelled because she’s divorced and no longer has the right to remain in France. Zorica, from former Yugoslavia, is the best friend of the wife (Iliana Lolic) of Iva’s brother (Francis Leplay). But Damien isn’t close to his father and is loath to talk to the imperious old man, let alone ask for a favor for someone he’s never met.
Written by Bonitzer and Agathe de Sacy (“Bad Faith,” “Je l’aimais”), the film starts with the frazzled, chain-smoking Iva, who’s courted by one of the younger thesps (Arthur Igual) she’s working with. But as the pic progresses, it becomes clear that the true protag is Damien, who has turned dragging his feet into an art.
In a nice, almost mirror image of Iva’s extramarital dalliance, the early middle-aged Damien strikes up an unexpected friendship with Aurore (Carre), a simple, radiant woman who works in a nearby restaurant. How her story ties into the plot is fairly predictable and will be clear to attentive auds a lot earlier than it is to Damien, who needs to discover Iva’s infidelity first and then throw his wife out of the house (and, unfortunately, pretty much out of the picture). However, the way Bonitzer resolves Aurore’s Gordian knot of a subplot is satisfying, down to its poetic ending.
Generally, the film is less about story points than about the characters’ relationships and the world they live in, a contempo society that’s clearly multicultural but doesn’t grant the same value to all cultures. Asia provides seductive new superpowers that might soon surpass the West and have already colonized more than just its food culture — in the film’s most overt, not entirely successful attempt at comedy, two characters sleep with a hot Japanese waiter (Masahiro Kashiwagi) — while Russian and Eastern European influences exist both high and low: Chekhov and Nabokov have been culturally assimilated, while Zorica isn’t even allowed to stay in France despite being, in many ways, more French than most Frenchies.
Acting is uniformly solid, with Bacri in fine form as a grown-up, independent man still paralyzed by his father and Rich the perfect mix of authority, couldn’t-care-less attitude and charm. Carre is luminous, and Scott Thomas, here a brunette with a grown-out perm, impresses in another frigid characterization; it’s a fully realized performance, if not a fully realized role.
Assembly is strong, with Alexei Aigui’s score driving things forward in the early going before turning more melancholy as the characters and their quandaries become more pronounced.