But Is It Good for the French?
BY GARY M. KRAMER | A fabulous and very funny French farce, “Let My People Go!,” directed and co-written by out gay Mikael Buch, opens with the previously happy gay couple Ruben (Nicolas Maury) and Teemu (Jarkko Niemi) splitting up. When Ruben, a Frenchman working as a postman in Finland, comes home one day with nearly 200,000 Euros, he explains to Teemu that the intended recipient of a registered package containing the money — who may now be dead — aggressively rejected it and insisted the postman keep it.
Teemu jumps to the conclusion that his boyfriend is a lying, thieving murderer and kicks him out of their house. To cope, Ruben returns to his dysfunctional family, headed by his overbearing Jewish momma (Carmen Maura), in Paris for Passover.
Ruben’s relationship troubles, however, are the least of his problems after he arrives in France. He soon becomes embroiled in various family crises — extramarital affairs, impending divorce, and bad health among them. Ruben must also fend off the lecherous advances of Goldberg (Jean-Luc Bideau), an older lawyer who fancies him.
In a recent Skype interview, Buch explained how he came to make “Let My People Go!”
“The starting point for the film came from some short films that starred Maury,” he said. “We created a character — a farcical Jewish gay boy — who was a little bit like me and a little like Maury. I liked the character and wanted to continue exploring his adventures.”
A series of wacky encounters with relatives includes Ruben’s father, Nathan (Jean-François Stévenin), insisting his non-athletic son play tennis with him. The episode leads to Ruben experiencing a hilarious meltdown, but also provides a pretext for Nathan to introduce his mistress to him. The scene, which is funny before it turns emotional, also serves Buch’s aim of defusing stereotypes.
“I wanted to play with gay and Jewish stereotypes in the film because they play a role in how we love,” he said. “We have an image about what a Jewish mother is, or how they should act, or how a gay son should act. The father and his mistress is something that doesn’t fit in the family. The father is unhappy because he doesn’t know how to play the part of a good Jewish father.”
As for puncturing queer stereotypes, Teemu generates a hearty laugh — and perhaps a gasp — when he utters one priceless post-coital comment.
Buch, whose mother is from Morocco and his father from Argentina, draws on his gay and Jewish identities to create “Let My People Go!,” but he acknowledged, “There are as many differences as there are similarities.”
The 29-year-old filmmaker grew up in Barcelona in a small Jewish community, which he described as being “like a big family.” There, he watched many films starring the iconic Spanish actress Maura.
“She is a queen!,” Buch gushed. “When you are a gay teenager who loves cinema and actresses, you can only love her.”
He enjoyed casting Maura against type as a Jewish mother, especially one who was quite different from his own.
“Carmen Maura was so important to my childhood — she was like a godmother,” the filmmaker explained. “She felt like family. In the end, she’s halfway between my mother and a kind of Bette Davis.”
Maura developed what Buch described as a “maternal relationship” with actor Maury on the set. She is a film veteran, and “Let My People Go!” was the actor’s first feature. Buch appreciated the bond they forged on set, and scenes between their characters are among the film’s warmest.
Maura’s appearance as well as the candy-colored design of this highly stylized film will likely lead many to draw comparisons to filmmakers such as Pedro Almodóvar, with whom Maura has worked for years, and Buch’s fellow French director François Ozon. Buch said he deliberately aimed to be seen in that company.
“Like those filmmakers, I have similar appreciation for Douglas Sirk and Stanley Donen and the idea of cinema that is bigger than life,” said the young French director, who confessed, “I am a total drama queen, like Jane Wyman’s character in ‘All that Heaven Allows.’”
“Hitchcock said he didn’t want to do slices of life, but slices of cake,” Buch added. “I relate a lot to that idea — giving pleasure to the audience. Making people happy with a film, but not in a superficial way but one that would make you braver or more daring to face life. That’s what I love about queer cinema.”
Buch then referred to another Hollywood giant, Billy Wilder, saying, “If you’re going to sell the truth, be funny or they will kill you. When I want to talk about serious issues, it’s better to do comedy rather than be didactic. It’s a way of talking about real issues in a lively way.”
“Let My People Go!” is largely concerned with issues of family, relationships, and the misunderstandings that crop up among lovers, siblings, parents, and children. A particularly amusing moment in the film comes as Ruben asks Goldberg for legal advice while the attorney is blowing him.
The scene is a good example of how Buch wanted sex to come across in the film.
“What was important to me was that the sex scenes were lively and joyful, and not raw,” he said. “In Europe, queer cinema has a tendency to show sex as gloomy. I wanted to show sex as playful.”
This sunny comedy offers many moments that viewers are sure to treasure for their playfulness.
LET MY PEOPLE GO! | Directed by Mikael Buch | In French, with English subtitles | Zeitgeist Films | Opens Jan. 11 | Quad Cinema | 34 W. 13th St. | Quadcinema.com