Peerless French actress Isabelle Huppert chooses her roles differently than most American stars, betting almost exclusively on the chance to work with directors she admires. It’s a strategy that has, by and large, paid off in a filmography full of provocative projects from the likes of Paul Verhoeven (“Elle”), Michael Haneke (“The Piano Teacher”), and Hong Sang-soo (“Claire’s Camera,” also out this week).
Belgian director Bavo Defurne is not a name most would place among such auteurs, having previously made just one feature (2011’s well-liked gay coming-of-age tale “North Sea Texas”) and a handful of queer shorts. But clearly Huppert sees something in him, agreeing to star in a pleasant enough little bauble entitled “Souvenir” — although, let’s be honest, the fact Defurne’s loving homage features a diva-worship leading role and a flattering May-September romance with one of France’s hottest young actors (“Love at First Fight” star Kévin Azaïs) must have influenced her decision.
Huppert plays Liliane Cheverny, AKA “Laura,” a half-forgotten one-hit wonder who competed in the Eurovision Song Contest 30 years earlier, disappearing shortly after being beaten by ABBA. When a question about Laura comes up in a TV quiz show, complete with a jog-your-memory clip of her best-known song, none of the contestants knows the answer. (In imagining the character, Defurne was no doubt inspired by Belgian singer Liliane Saint-Pierre, whose own Eurovision anthem, “Soldiers of Love,” was choreographed with arm movements only slightly less bizarre than the ones Huppert deploys here.)
But that was then. Now, Liliane has retreated back into the comforts of obscurity, working in a pâté factory, where she holds the decidedly unglamorous job of garnishing each baked-meat terrine with two bay leaves and a handful of dried berries. How deep must be the toll of celebrity for this forlorn existence to be an improvement? And yet, Liliane believes herself to be happy — though her scowl says otherwise, as does the generous helping of alcohol she tosses back alone at home every evening.
And then Jean, a young temp employee and part-time boxer, stumbles into her life. Where Liliane has grown cynical in her old age, Jean is not only optimistic, but enthralled to have discovered a washed-up celebrity in such an unlikely place. Talking his way up to her apartment, Jean nervously says, “My father thinks you’re great,” oblivious to how insulting the comment must sound — but then, Jean’s appeal has everything to do with his dumb, fumbling awkwardness (a routine so convincing, those discovering Azaïs in this film might not appreciate how his shy eyes, stooped shoulders, and brutish body language are all carefully calibrated for the part).
Jean isn’t a conventional lothario, but a naïve child, living out his father’s fantasy, and in so doing, rekindling a flame in Liliane that she had long since let smolder. Because the movie doesn’t have the budget or imagination to permit subplots, Jean has no other young suitors, and can’t even multi-task his boxing career, turning his attention instead to managing the comeback of “Laura” — booking her at a pathetic string of gigs at retirement homes, weddings, and the like. And then Jean gets his big idea, convincing her to compete on Eurovision once again without realizing that doing so will force her back into the grips of Tony Jones (Johan Leysen), the Svengali-like producer who broke her heart so many years before — and now hopes to win her back with a song.
“Souvenir” features just one twist, which Defurne gets out of the way with the opening credits: The titles unfold amid a romantic swell of music, set against what appear to be Champagne bubbles, but are in fact nothing more than the fizz of Liliane’s daily antacid tablets. It’s a cute touch, but also the film’s only surprise — apart from how guiltlessly diverting it all is, of course.
Another director might have pumped the script full of psychological subtext, the way Xavier Giannoli did his heart-aching (and superficially similar) “The Singer,” with Gérard Depardieu. But Defurne is happy to let things unfold on the surface, à la Douglas Sirk. He clearly worships Huppert, and seems to rely on audiences feeling the same way, doing little to enhance her natural charms. Her costumes are adequate, but not especially dazzling, and nearly all the sets look under-dressed (apart from the pâté factory, a repurposed abattoir with neat, industrial blue tiles that’s practically “Amélie” worthy — which partially compensates for her anemic apartment, so phony as to make “The Room” look downright cozy by comparison).
Perhaps that budget instead went to the film’s music, including three French-language songs by Thomas M. Lauderdale of the Portland-based band Pink Martini catchy enough to convincingly evoke the kind of Gallic hits performed by singers of limited range (of the kind Serge Gainsbourg wrote for female vocalists). Or else, he invested in the fabulously old-fashioned Pierre et Gilles portrait that appears on the “Souvenir” movie poster — if only the shamelessly campy vibe it conveys (reminiscent of Huppert’s appearance in François Ozon’s “8 Women”) were also to be found in the film.
And so the question remains: Is Defurne indeed the great director Huppert believes him to be, or just a small-town lightweight smitten with his star? Alas, only his future projects will tell.