Sometimes its rather nice to be wrong-footed by a movie, a small pleasure comparable to discovering that you've misjudged someone who turns out to be smarter and more imaginative that you too quickly gave them credit for. Allow me to elaborate.
Director Xavier Giannoli opens his 2006 The Singer (Quand j'étais chanteur – literally 'When I Was a Singer'), in gently seductive fashion, acutely observing the small details of the activity in the dance-hall in which the title character Alain Moreau (wonderfully played by Gérard Depardieu – more on that later) is trotting out old favourites to an elderly but appreciative audience. Attractive young estate agent Marion (Cécile De France) catches his eye when she gets into an argument with a fellow patron over a dance. It turns out she's with her employer Bruno (Mathieu Amalric), who's an old friend of Alain's, which provides an opportunity for the singer to try his moves on her. But she's clearly unimpressed with this overweight, middle-aged, would-be lothario.
In this opening sequence Alain is economically drawn as a man both professionally and personally past his prime, a would-be charmer (played by one of cinema's own natural charmers) whose first on-screen attempt at seduction falls on its face. It's believable and rather touching, but what happens then? Alain gets up to sing again and as Marion watches him she starts to fall under his spell – a smile, a moment of self-realisation, and just seconds of film time later they're snogging in the corridor and off to Alain's bed. The effortless appeal of that first ten minutes was, for me, instantly sullied, as if the film's European cinema sensibilities had been traded in for a more simplistic, Hollywood style wish-fulfillment.
Cut to next morning and a contented Alain is cheerfully humming away in the bathroom, but when Marion awakes her expression is one of troubled confusion and she's out of there before her companion realises what's happening. So was this a judgement lapse, fuelled by a glass too many, the red rose sent to her table and the realisation that maybe Alain was actually rather a nice guy beneath his unforced patter? Well yes, but there's more. We're not long into the film before we discover that Marion is not exactly in the most stable of emotional places and is struggling to bond with a young son she is granted only infrequent access to by his unseen father. And that first sexual liaison between the two becomes crucial to how their subsequent relationship develops, stripping it of that 'will they won't they?' question that would otherwise dominate a growing if uneven bond that is more about feelings and emotions and possible futures rather than lust or desire.
That night remains for Marion a moment of misjudgement that rings a warning bell every time her guard drops and she finds herself warming to Alain, although it's a guard we increasingly would like to see fall. In the first of two extended character introductions, each following a meeting between the Alain and Marion, Alain is shown to be a sympathetic and easy-going man who shrugs off life's disappointments but finds himself unable to put his experience with Marion behind him. He persuades her to act for him in a professional capacity to search for a new house, initially amicable appointments that eventually frustrate and anger Marion but later provide a time and space for two friends to share quiet time together. It's to writer and director Xavier Giannoli's credit that neither this nor other aspects of Alain's life run an obvious or even expected course. This extends to the crossover of his work and his personal life, with his career managed by his business-savvy ex-girlfriend Michèle (Christine Citti), whose open involvement with bar manager Daniel doesn't stop her keeping a concerned eye on Alain and even sleeping with him on occasion, but whose eventual decision to marry her boyfriend clearly saddens Alain more than he is prepared to admit.
The film encourages us to yearn for a relationship that societal and even movie convention assures us is unlikely to happen, or at least to last. That we care enough about the characters to want them to find happiness in one form or another is to a large extent down to a pair of beautifully judged performances from Gérard Depardieu and Cécile De France, who create in Alain and Marion characters that are as truthful as they are sympathetic. Their combined restraint and a skilful avoidance of even a hint of sentimentality ensures that we really do feel for their sadness, warm to their moments of emotional synergy and almost recoil with alarm at Marion's sudden and unexpected flash of anger.
The Singer has been particularly championed for Depardieu's performance, which has been hailed as a return to form for a great actor who has in recent years strayed from the fold, and although I personally thought his motormouth turn in Francis Veber's Taisez-toi! was a comic gem, it's hard not to agree. This is old school Depardieu seasoned with a subtlety that comes with experience and age, the sort of performance that almost demands a second viewing to appreciate in isolation from the surrounding drama, which it nonetheless always serves. Even his singing rings true – it may not be designed to sell the soundtrack CD* (although the emotive strings of Alexandre Desplat's gorgeous orchestral score might well do so), but perfectly captures the sound and repertoire of the dance hall singer that Alain has become and, it would seem, is content to remain.
Crucially, Depardieu never dominates or overshadows his fellow performers and rightly so, for despite its (English language) title, The Singer is an examination of two lives rather than one, and the equality of screen time and performance is in this respect close to perfect. Save for those documentary-like observations of dance-hall detail, Xavier Gianonoli's direction is deceptively unobtrusive, although he does pepper the film with memorable character moments and unusually employs the isolating space of wide shots to similarly effective emotional effect as more traditional close-ups.
The Singer may not break any new ground, but it does engage us most effectively with two likeable, believable and expertly performed characters and prompt sympathy and even empathy for their lives and their fate. And do stay with the end credits for Alain's amusing musical rumination on his own middle-age and for a brief but strangely magical glimpse of him energetically belting out the same tune without musical backing, not for any audience but, just once, for the sheer pleasure of singing.
A very nice anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer with strong colour reproduction, crisp detail and spot-on contrast. The dance-hall scenes are particularly well rendered, their blend of bright colours, backlighting, deep shadows and even smoke providing a stern test for any digital transfer, but this one copes very well.
Dolby 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround tracks are both included – the stereo track is good but inevitably the 5.1 is the business, using the surrounds to create a more inclusive atmosphere in the dance halls and reproducing dialogue with a little more subtlety than the spread-across-the-front 2.0 track. The LFE on the 5.1 really kicks when Marion and her son visit a 360 degree cinema exhibition showing footage of volcanoes – you could almost believe you were there with them.
Interview with Xavier Giannoli (49:52)
A substantial and interesting chat with the director that covers quite a bit of ground, including the writing of the film and the casting of Depardieu, who was crucial to the project for interesting reasons. Giannoli also talks about the story's autobiographical element and a few of his favourite films – you might be surprised at one he singles out and the actor he would most like to work with. Quite why Giannoli spends the entire interview toying with a lupin is another matter.
Alain Chanone: The Real Singer (11:56)
A French-made featurette on the man who was the inspiration for the character of Alain Moreau and advisor to director Giannoli during the writing of the script. Chanone proves as engaging as Moreau himself in a breezily assembled featurette that introduces us to band and his home life and illustrates just how closely Depardieu's portrayal was based on him. Chanone does dismiss the idea of getting involved with younger female patrons of the dance halls in which he plays, although his wife remains, in her words, 'sceptical'.
'When I was at Cannes' featurette (5:49)
A brief by interesting video record of the director and cast at Cannes, fielding question from the press and posing for photographs.
An OK trailer that captures the flavour of the film.
A selected filmography for Depardieu, a full one for De France.
A very well observed, bittersweet story of an age-gap relationship whose development is made all more intriguing by getting the sex out of the way right at the start. Terrific performances all round (Mathieu Amalric and Christine Citti deserved a mention in key supporting roles as Bruno and Michèle) and smartly subtle filmmaking make this a winner. Although best enjoyed in the company of a cinema audience (the small comedic moments play so well there), Artificial Eye's DVD is a fine second best, with a strong transfer backed by some worthwhile extras. Recommended.
* Having said that, as people filed out of our cinema screening of the film I heard one couple cheerfully singing Alain's end credits song. Maybe there's a career as a singer for Depardieu after all.