Monday, April 9, 2018

French Postcards (1979)

          There’s a tendency among cinemaniacs of a certain age to romanticize the so-called “Film School Mafia” of early ’70s, as if everyone in the Coppola/Lucas orbit was a genius. What, then, to make of husband-and-wife collaborators Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz? Most of their showiest jobs have been gifts from Lucas, and even though they helped script American Graffiti (1973), they also made Howard the Duck (1986). Projects that Huyck and Katz put together on their own are unimpressive, as evidenced by the youth comedy French Postcards, the first big-budget movie directed by Huyck. Despite featuring mildly erotic elements, French Postcards bucks the trend of late-’70s college pictures by opting for PG-rated laughs instead of hard-R raunch. Admirable as the film’s restraint might be, however, other aspects of French Postcards are frustrating or worse.
          The setup is straightforward: Three American students spend a year in Paris and have romantic adventures. Generally speaking, the Huyck/Katz script transitions smoothly from one episode to the next, though one of the parallel storylines nearly dies for lack of oxygen (more on that in a minute). Joel (Miles Chapin) is a good student who needs a push to leave his dorm room and explore Paris, but he somehow gets laid on his first date with sexy retail clerk Toni (Valérie Quennessen). Wannabe songwriter Alex (David Marshall Grant) becomes infatuated with the exchange program’s alluring headmistress, Madame Catherine (Marie-France Pisier), who conveniently discovers that her husband is unfaithful. Meanwhile, Laura (Blanche Baker) spends lots of time investigating French historical sites (to the bizarre accompaniment of Raymond Chandler-ish voiceover) until she tumbles into a romantic-triangle situation. The Joel/Toni storyline gets at puritanical American attitudes, since he can’t handle her past promiscuity. The Alex/Catherine storyline is pure bedroom farce. And the Laura business is pointless until she meets the picture’s only memorable character, an obnoxious Persian lothario played by scene-stealing Mandy Patinkin. (The other future star in the cast is Debra Winger, wasted in a tiny supporting role.)
          On a conceptual level, French Postcards is fine. Digging any deeper reveals serious problems. Not only do Huyck and Katz predicate their story on the stereotype that all French people are libertines, but the filmmakers can’t seem to decide whether they’re making a broad comedy or a gentle character study. Half the time it seems they’re going for Billy Wilder-esque hilarity and missing the mark. Elsewhere it seems they’re after faux-European ambiguity, somewhat in the Paul Mazursky tradition. Huyck and Katz fare better with that stuff, but too often they undercut nuanced moments with dumb jokes. Similarly, leering shots of Pisier in sexy outfits (or less) nudge the picture into bland male fantasy.
         One last thing: Someone on the filmmaking team gets points for the running joke of Gallic cover songs, because it’s fun decoding the French versions of “Do You Believe in Magic,” “You’re the One That I Want,” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”

French Postcards: FUNKY

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