Chateau, The

Reviewed By Thom
Posted 08/13/02 05:07:02

"Francophiles will snicker knowingly and you'll want to slap them"
3 stars (Average)

How do Paul Rudd and Sylvie Testud (Murderous Maids) end up in a film together? The Chateau is a perfect example of how a film can be sabotaged by using digital video rather than film. Several scenes were dark and poorly lit and the overall quality of the projection is grainy and coarse. The opening sequence seemed so self-consciously improvised and amateur that I began to lose interest before the film even started but I was soon pulled in when Graham (Rudd) and Allen (Malco) arrive at the Chateau and the skillful execution of the plot elevated the parts into a compelling whole.

Graham and Allen arrive in France to take possession of a Chateau left to them by an Uncle they didnít know they had. Graham is a Midwestern college student intellectual who thinks he is wiser about the world than he really is. He is self-righteous about his trip to France and considers himself more appropriate for the European adventure than his adopted black brother Graham, a hip-hop producer living in Los Angeles. Both of them are hilariously naÔve.

Allen doesnít even try to bend towards the French aristocratic country ways whereas Graham is trying to not be the ďstupid American.Ē Being Americans, they have no real conception of the often abritrary relationship between class, title and wealth. They do not know how to be served and their instant familiarity with the staff of the Chateau sets the stage for a series of comical but at times painfully indicting clashes of cultural expectations.

Graham and Allen did not expect a full staff; a Gardener, Butler, Housekeeper and Maid, to come with the house and they arenít sure what to do with them since they came only to sell the property and return to the US richer culturally and a little thicker in the wallet. The French cast, led by Didier Flamand as the Butler and Sylvie Testud as Isabelle, the maid, drench the film in a French flavor and create a properly nuanced foil for the American invaders. The film is primarily in English, but the point of view is skewed towards the French perspective.

The staff is not happy with the new lords of the estate and they fear for their future well-being should the property be sold so they begin a campaign to scare off potential buyers. There is more to the story than the two brothers can guess. All is not what it seems at the Chateau.

When Isabelle becomes the object of affection for both Graham and Allen, the story turns towards a love triangle that serves, like everything, to highlight the differences in expectations and attitudes. But the film isnít a satire and never comes off as completely judgmental. Rudd overplays his part at times and comes off as a caricature who softens on occasion to become more of a person while Malco always is just what he is. Since Allen isnít trying to exactly fit in, Malco can let the scene develop out of the inherent conflict rather then be entirely performance driven.

When I was in college, I studied French and everyone in the French program were all Francophiles. It was a purely utilitarian course for me. French is an international language and I wanted to get into a good grad school and I needed a language. Even the professors had the attitude that we werenít just learning French, we were learning a better way to live, the French way. I remember once getting particularly angry because the prof had, in a very condescending way, insinuated that Americans are uncultured barbarians because we have no appreciation for wine. French children drink wine at a very early age so somehow, they are more sophisticated and probably better lovers.

All this may actually be true and my own prejudices against American culture have been fueled by trips to Europe but Iím more of a cultural relativist and think that you can just pick and choose what you like and learn from every culture the world over. So I liked that the film uses the French background to create an effective mirror but without being condescending.

I didnít like Testudís performance in The Murderous Maids, I thought it was too stiff and overbearing but in The Chateau she gives a wonderful, subtle, believable performance. Rudd has the unhappy task of being the real buffoon, rather than the intended one. Ruddís character doesnít need any of the other characters to become the clown American trying to be French, whereas Malco needs the other characters to act as a foil for his black urban personality. In the context of the film, the audience is tempted to raise eyebrows at Allenís boorishness, but since Allen is the more genuine of the two brothers, itís much easier to forgive his lapses in protocol.

The chemistry between Malco and Rudd make up for the occasional scene chewing and gratuitousness. Rudd told me in a recent interview that he enjoys slapstick and the scenes in this film where he really brings the house down are great but at times the film feels like a string of sketches. In the end, it serves the film well, but along the way, the shifts in tone felt like a hard, jerking left. Wait, I wasn't ready to get emotional and teary, you just had me busting a gut, I need a transition.

A scene where Allen has to run outside in his underwear isnít as funny as it would be if Jerry Lewis were doing it. The scene isnít played as broad comedy nor does it move the story along or develop the character. Allen loses a cell phone signal and runs outside to return the call as quickly as possible. Naturally, he ends up back inside just as the bewildered French staff are performing their morning duties. Since he is the master of the house, nobody can react as if anything is wrong. It is their duty to behave as if everything is proceeding as it should. The set up just didnít deliver and it could have been cut from the film entirely.

But hey, if watching a cute guy run around in his underwear is your thing, I say RUN to the theatre. Not to mention the enormously talented Paul Rudd is always gorgeous on screen.

The Chateau takes every opportunity to play off the most crass elements of Americans and highlights a few of the more universal qualities of individual human beings trying to be the best person they know they how to be.

The love story is much more sophisticated than the comic opportunities and is the real gem of the movie. It seems tucked in there as an afterthought, but becomes the emotional crux of the film and resolves itself in an unexpected yet empowering way for Isabelle. Despite the film quality and the occasional inconsistencies in the characters, The Chateau is a funny, intriguing, story about culture clash and the complexities of love.

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