July 24, 2014
Max – France, 2012
There are films that work in spite of themselves, movies that remain intriguing even though invisible forces seem hell-bent on pulling them into the depths of utter lunacy. And such a film is Stephanie Murat’s Max. The film is an unholy mix of clichés that will instantly be recognized by anyone who has seen Pretty Women, Sleepless in Seattle, Beauty and the Beast, and Three Fugitives, and it has a premise that will likely divide audiences into two camps: those who can go with it and those who will reject it out of hand. For the first two-thirds of the film, I found myself just barely in the first camp. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is made up of an unremitting string of tried-and-true formulaic moments, most of which are apt to try the patience of even the most ardent of romantics.
The film’s central character is Toni, a young widower trying to raise his six-year-old daughter, Maxine. Toni is also a petty thief, and in the opening scene, he and a friend are engaged in the robbery of a grocery store. This is normally the set-up of a drama, but the film soon reveals itself to be much more light-hearted than serious, and as the film progresses, there is much more comedy than gravity. The target of Toni’s attempted crime is the store’s Foie Gras, and, in true comic fashion, nothing goes as it should. Most frustrating for Toni is the phone call he receives mid-robbery from the principal of his daughter’s school, who informs him that his daughter, Maxine (Shana Castera), has run off yet again. So Toni does what all fathers would do in his situation – he gives up on the robbery and goes in search of his daughter. He soon finds her. She runs off again. It is enough to try the patience of a saint.
Eventually Max finds herself sitting at a bus stop outside a bar on the outskirts of town. A car pulls up, a young woman named Rose exits it rather roughly, and the two of them strike up a rather warm conversation. When asked what she does, Rose euphemistically explains that she “takes care of the chaps.” This puts an idea into innocent Max’s head - Why doesn’t this nice lady take care of my dad? He’s a chap. The next day, she takes what little money she has and offers it to Rose to look after her father until Christmas. This arrangement is ultimately agreed upon, albeit not entirely in the way depicted in Pretty Woman. I suppose your willingness to believe that a father like Toni would allow Rose to stay will ultimately determine whether you accept the rest of the film or not. I admit it was a stretch for me.
Rose is played by Mathilde Seigner, who bears a striking resemblance to a young Sarah Jessica Parker. In fact, I’m convinced that Seigner would be the perfect Carrie Bradshaw in a French version of Sex and the City. Toni is played by Joey Starr, one of the most intriguing actors I’ve seen in some time. In his face, we see a world of experiences, and Starr excels at simultaneously exhibiting and hiding pain. In other moments, he is like a chameleon, disguising himself as whatever character Toni’s latest con requires him to play. I would venture that in happier times, this character could absolutely thrill audiences at an improv theater. In truth, I can’t think of an actor more suited for the role. Matching Starr step by step is Jean-Pierre Marielle as his partner-in-crime/voice of reason, Nick. He too seems to be having a lot of fun playing the conventional role of the wise and philosophical father figure. This is the kind of character that can almost always be counted on to dole out life lessons at very pivotal moments.
The film reminds us that what someone does for a living does not necessarily define who he or she is as a person. A thief can be a good father, a woman in Rose’s profession can also be a role model for children, and looks can indeed be deceiving. Of course, we’ve seen this message delivered in other films, but this is one film in which it seems slightly more than a rote cinematic truism.
There will be some that will watch the film and wonder just when and why love sprouts between the film’s central characters. These are fair questions, for the film foregoes the normal emotion-filled, revelatory scene during which two characters first find themselves drawn together. However, to me, this is one of the things that the film gets right. By avoiding such a moment, the film forces us to pay attention to smaller, quieter moments, for in life, it is often in these moments – in quick glances over one’s shoulder, in smiles that grow in intensity as time passes, and in seemingly innocuous comments – that love and attraction truly blossom.
That said, the film’s final act is a letdown, and it hurts the film immensely, especially given that it was never entirely original in the first place. What it needed to compensate for this was a strong, novel ending. What we get instead is a paint-by-numbers rehash of almost every other film of this genre, from manufactured angst to the usual cuts between two should-be lovers seemingly walking away from each other forever. There’s even a sappy love song with lyrics intended to show the characters’ inner turmoil. I get it. I do. It just doesn’t cut it. (on DVD in Taiwan; according to IMDB, the film has not been released in the United States)
2 and a half stars
*Max is in French with English subtitles.