Three weeks would be a long time to spend in the company of any one character in “21 Nights With Pattie”; even two hours, toward the tail-end of Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu’s sprightly black comedy, feels a bit of a stretch. For most of its running time, however, the fraternal directing duo’s eighth narrative feature is a woozy, last-of-the-summer-wine pleasure, one that never lets the gravity of its thematic concerns — sex and death, sometimes at once — get in the way of a good party. Beginning as a rural whodunnit, with Isabelle Carre’s exasperated outsider seeking the stolen corpse of her estranged mother, before loosely spiraling into a far stranger fusion of erotic awakening and ghost story, this mirthfully performed original could prove one of the Larrieus’ livelier international players.
The pic’s soundtrack may kick off with a boisterous burst of Southern-gumbo blues, but in every other respect, “21 Nights With Pattie” arrives on the screen as aromatically Gallic as ail des ours. A breezy undertow of very particular joie de vivre is felt in its wooded corner of southwest France, and that’s before Denis Lavant shows up, babbling barely-comprehensible innuendo in snug denim cutoffs, as the puckish village lech. (So delightfully disorienting are the actor’s brief appearances that one wonders if Monsieur Merde, his Leos Carax-directed alter ego, has somehow escaped into another film entirely.) Yet while Lavant, Andre Dussollier and Sergi Lopez all add character and class to the film’s deft ensemble, it’s primarily the women’s show, with the sparky, saucy interplay between Carre and an inspired Karin Viard (in the title role, but not the leading one) an animating factor throughout.
As tightly wound fortysomething Caroline, Carre cuts a reticent figure at the outset — her dark, modest casualwear and nervously set expression immediately distinguishing her from the loucher, looser residents of the idyllic winemaking valley where she has arrived to arrange her mother Isabelle’s funeral. It emerges that Caroline scarcely knew Isabelle, a vivacious, restless lawyer who was absent for much of her childhood. The locals, on the other hand, remember “Zaza” with a palpable breadth of affection that only exacerbates Caroline’s passive, conflicted sense of grief — none more so than the dead woman’s former housekeeper Pattie (Viard), a free-spirited gossip who either doesn’t sense or doesn’t care about the new arrival’s discomfort. Within minutes of their acquaintance, Pattie regales Caroline with lip-smackingly explicit tales of her local sexual conquests, going on to mention that Isabelle was something of a “libertine” herself.
This is all information that Caroline — whose Skype conversations with her ursine Spanish husband Manuel (Lopez) betray a marriage long plagued by sexual frustration — could handily do without. Yet the surrounding forest emits an enchanted, midsummer-night’s-dream aura that is the enemy of inhibition: When Isabelle’s embalmed body mysteriously disappears from her sprawling villa, more to the villagers’ amusement than their urgent concern, Caroline is forced to extend her visit and engage first-hand with the cheerfully Dionysian ways of the community. The Sauvignon-blurred picture is further muddled by the arrival of Jean (Dussollier), an enigmatic writer who professes to be an old friend of Isabelle’s. As old desires and heartaches are seemingly stirred from the dead, Caroline picks up flirtatious static at every turn, from the local gendarme (who helpfully shares his theory that her mother’s body was kidnapped by a necrophage) to Pattie’s immodest 18-year-old son Kamil (Jules Ritmanic).
The Larrieus’ screenplay thus daintily wrongfoots viewers with its initial promise of a cathartic puzzle narrative in which a troubled parent-child relationship is gradually pieced together. Before long, Isabelle’s death and peculiar disappearance amount to little more than a MacGuffin in the present-tense tale of her daughter’s sensual liberation. The helmers employ infectious musical variations and sly visual trickery to reflect her shifting state of mind. In a somewhat literal but effective symbolic flourish, the initially constricted aspect ratio of Yannick Ressigeac’s elegant, dappled-shade lensing expands in time with her fun-seeking sensibility, culminating in glorious panoramic vistas of a blush-colored dawn.
If the film’s technique isn’t always subtle, there’s enough dry drollness in its writing to even things out. Within their magical-realist framework, the Larrieus sneak in some pointed observations about the differing physical and philosophical urges of men and women. “Despite my attraction to the dead, I don’t believe in ghosts,” muses one character — a line that feels utterly characteristic of the pic’s curiouser-and-curiouser story world, which nonetheless runs out of curiosity value at some point in its shaggily over-extended denouement. Still, the actors all feast on such vigorous verbal material, none more so than Viard, whose ribald, saltily detailed monologues of pastoral promiscuity are consistent comic gold.