Life imitates art is far more than a philosophical trope in Dominique Choisy’s heartwarming French motion picture. Putting together a sweet and spicy homage to cinema, My Life With James Dea (Ma vie avec James Dean) immerses the viewer irrevocably in the magic and power of filmmaking. Featuring impressive performances, stunning visuals and unique wit, Choisy’s project touches upon all of the beloved French cinema themes and stereotypes, while still navigating an original and sprightly story rife with nuttiness, laughter and raw emotion.
The young filmmaker Géraud Champreaux (Johnny Rasse) is hoping to catch his big break after being invited in Normandy to premiere his first independent feature film. Once there, however, he faces a harsh reality – the audience is really only interested in romantic comedies and American action movies. His trip to the small northern area is not all plain sailing either. His cell phone is stolen by a young boy and his host, Sylvie van Rood (Nathalie Richard), is nowhere to be found. Moreover, when Géraud arrives at the cinema, nobody there seems to know anything about a special screening. At least his local hotel recognizes him and offers him lodging. Unfortunately, the film screens only to an old lady who is shocked and repulsed by the graphic nature of the footage. There is a silver lining from this entire fiasco though – Géraud meets the cinema projectionist, Balthazar (Mickaël Pelissier), a young closeted gay man who has fallen head over heels in love with the filmmaker.
Creating a statement tribute is a road filled with challenges and common pitfalls, but Choisy is up to the task with his candid and nuanced approach. He does not overuse tropes and does not abuse the visual culture of meta-cinema. No time is wasted on the intricacies of Géraud’s motion picture or some of the more monotone aspects of production either. Instead, the director focuses on the protagonist’s unusual insights, the characters’ quirkiness and their journey as a whole, rather than its desired outcome. More emphasis is placed on the essence of the artistic process, as well as how it unfolds where it is least expected and in an almost esoteric manner, with Géraud ultimately finding his inspiration in a forgotten town at the end of the earth.
Choisy finds the ideal blend between sophisticated universal themes and the more mundane, faint mishaps and idiosyncrasies that fundamentally shape the characters’ experience. Running the risk of seeming scattered and disconnected, My Life With James Dea (Ma vie avec James Dean) cleverly intertwines a variety of narrative threads. There is the plight of Géraud and his independent film, but also Gladys (Juliette Damines), the front desk manager who seems to have a naïve interest in the protagonist, young Balthazar’s struggle to come out and discover new love, the curious old woman who cannot miss any of Géraud’s screenings, but also the crumbling relationship between Catherine (Nathalie Richard) and her partner Louise (Marie Vernalde) who has left her. All of these bizarre subplots do add an off-the-wall feel to Choisy’s motion picture and hinder a deeper resolution. Some of them are left pending towards the end of the movie and others are completely abandoned, while the main narrative line is gracefully concluded.
The slow-paced film has no shortage of marvellously peculiar characters and is chock-full of secondary liaisons and intrigues. Each character is consumed by their own romantic endeavours, while still being engaged in everyone else’s indiscretions. However, the ancillary stories do serve a canny purpose, as they imbue the viewer in silliness to further draw them in, but also work together flawlessly and climax into comedic madness. These additions keep the movie grounded and light-hearted, letting you know that it does not take itself too seriously and neither should you. What Choisy remarkably manages to achieve is to keep a sense of realism in the midst of absurd and whimsy storytelling. Despite their quirks and failings, the characters are not caricaturized or one-dimensional, but rather relatable, real and charming through their imperfections.
With weight under its comedic veneer, My Life With James Dean (Ma vie avec James Dean) builds upon a long-established cornerstone of French art and theater – a “film about film” – and creates a mesmerizing piece that combines subtle storytelling with deadpan humour and an endearing love for masterful cinematography. Choisy is relentless in his exploration of the human condition, while still managing to keep a detached and easygoing tone for the entire project. Despite its heavier topics, and nuanced character development, the motion picture’s comedic and aloof nature remains unruffled all throughout, enticing its unsuspecting viewers through its unwonted playfulness.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures