Friday, April 29, 2011

FILM REVIEW: My Piece of the Pie [@ Tribeca Film Festival]

The Great Recession has been looming over us ever since Obama first thought we could. With the clouds still casting dark shadows in every corner of the Earth, it’s no wonder that such dire circumstances are echoed in today’s cinema, from indie dramedies like Up in the Air to family comedies like Ramona & Beezus. As the topic becomes more popular, screenwriters are finding it more challenging to find a new angle. Up in the Air was from the perspective of the cold machine that thoughtlessly and impersonally disposes of its employees, like toilet paper stuck to the bottom of its shoe—quickly and secretively before anyone notices. It explored how that can take a toll on a product of that machine when he suddenly realizes there’s more to life than just money (or frequent flier miles). C├ędric Klapisch’s French dramedy My Piece of the Pie aims to show the perspective of the working class—to show how it not only affects their livelihood, but their will to live.
The film opens with the lead female character France’s suicide attempt. She was laid off from the factory she worked at for the last 20 years, and felt as though she could not provide for her three daughters. After a lot of family support and indecision, she finally decides to take a friend's offer to be trained as a cleaning lady in Paris. There would, however, be rules: Never speak more than necessary. Don't bother your employer with your personal problems. And, most importantly, be invisible. Of course, France is not the timid type. She is a very opinionated and forthright woman. So it's only a matter of days before she becomes chummier with him than he's ever been with any of his servants, and only a couple of weeks before he respects and trust her more than he's had any woman he's ever slept with. But little does she know that the man for which she's cleaning is the very same man who orchestrated the take-down of her factory’s company.
In a drama, their interactions would be immersed in suspenseful undertones, as we wait for the proverbial bomb to drop. But this isn't a drama. It's a dramedy. There was no tension, only open discourse peppered with light, but sincere humor. This was a rare opportunity, a situation in which the destroyer and the destroyed could get to know each other and learn what each believes in and what motivates them. Stephen teaches her about the stock market, how it works, and how much can be made from the click of a single button, while France teaches him how to not neglect his son Alban and how to get back the love of his life Melody. And as they get closer and the film transitions from a dramedy into a romantic dramedy, it starts to seem like Stephen will transform into the man that France needs, and into the father that Alban deserves...or at least that's what would happen in an American movie. For us, there must be redemption and reform. But this film isn’t about Stephen learning from his mistakes. It's about accountability, about realizing he was wrong and admitting it—and not just to his son, or his ex, or even to France, but to all of the factory workers who were laid off. Stephen was supposed to represent the faceless higher-ups and France was the Joan of Ark of the wrongfully terminated. 

In the end, when they both realize their coincidental connection, he laughs at what a small world it is. Under any other circumstance a coincidence may seem laughable—to know the mother of your future bride before you know her or to buy the same dress as your friend, perhaps. But laughing at the fact that he destroyed the company she once worked for and he's the reason she now works for him, was just cruel. And so it was understandable that France needed to do something that would make him realize the error of his ways. She kidnaps Alban and takes him back to her city, hoping that when Stephen comes to get him, he will have to face all the people he got fired. What she did can be considered monstrous or unforgivable, but to the viewer who has seen her journey and her anguish, and seen his selfishness and needless excess, it seems pretty reasonable.

Of course, Stephen, being as self-absorbed as he is, doesn't realize what's prompted her alleged "mental break," so he alerts Interpol and they arrest her. As they cart her away, her family and friends try to stop them from driving off. They link arms and press against the moving vehicle in a dangerous tug-of-war, keeping it in place. Stephen's preoccupation for someone other than himself, his desperation to find his son, his apology to Melody who consoles him, and his hesitation to press charges against France almost convinces you that perhaps she had an effect on him. Even as he looks on, he wonders out loud if he should ask them to set her free, wonders if he made a mistake. This, however, isn't his final redemptive moment. No, his last chance to prove that these men of industry can be reformed and that change is on the horizon comes when the factory workers crowd around his luxury sports car and ask him if he's the man France told them about, the man who destroyed their lives. And like the coward that he is, he denies it. He swears that it wasn't just him and that he alone is not to blame. He, like many other un-indicted wealthy men, refuses to be held accountable. And so he runs for his life towards the ocean. And in this very moment, as France begins to regret what she did, handcuffed in the backseat of the rocking van and staring at her daughters' tear-soaked faces, she realizes the revolution she's begun...and she begins to laugh victoriously. Roll credits.

The film seems to end with no resolution—no explanation as to whether Stephen ever stopped running or if he dropped the charges or if she got a better job elsewhere. Director Klapisch said, in the Q&A, that he didn't believe there could be an ending, because our recession has not yet ended. He cannot predict the future, therefore he could not give France and Stephen one. But I think, with this film, he did predict the future, albeit a hopeful one—one where the working class no longer accepts half-baked apologies and starts demanding compensation, whether it comes in the form of a check or a prison sentence.
Despite its heavy topic, this film does indeed have its comical moments, like the scene where France first gets upgraded from maid to nanny and learns her new salary, followed promptly by a scene where she and her daughters dance joyously in the supermarket to the "Pretty Woman" theme song. I also enjoyed—and truly couldn't sit through without covering my embarrassed ears—the scene where she pretends to be a Russian escort who doesn't know a lot of English in order to play Stephen's date at a boring dinner party. She sounded like a dopey cross between Borat and Steve Carell's Dinner for Schmucks character. Stephen also had several good, off-hand remarks that usually were at his own expense, like the one where he told France she'd have to move in with him so she could be his woman translator. Moments like these made the film seem like it could pass for a romantic comedy minus the ending. But don't be fooled. It is first and foremost a social statement.

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