Painfully funny: some films of Coline Serreau

romuald_et_juliette_1988_diaporama_portraitColine Serreau is an extraordinarily talented French film director who has also worked in theatre and television. She is the daughter of actor/stage director Jean-Marie Serreau and writer Geneviève Serreau, and the mother of Madeleine Besson with stage director Benno Besson.

Actor, film director, producer, writer, composer and playwright, Serreau’s talents have been recognised in many media. She has won numerous awards for her films, the best known of which is Three Men and a Baby. Beginning with a sometimes comical account of the battle of the sexes, Serreau’s work has broadened to include a strong political call for consideration and care of the planet. Her writing shows great understanding of human nature in depicting people who have put themselves in untenable situations and the frustrations they endure as a consequence. Her comedy is wry, sometimes painfully so, and full of perception.

La Crise
La Crise tells the story of Victor, played by Vincent Lindon, who awakes one morning to find his wife has left him, leaving him to look after his children the best way he can. She hasn’t even bought any milk. Desperate for sympathy, Victor finds that his friends seemingly don’t have time to listen. He goes to work, only to find he’s been made redundant, and his secretary, with whom he’s been having an affair, is more interested in his replacement than in him. A wonderful performance from Lindon makes this character both farcical and sympathetic. Serreau has a point to her humour of course. Victor ends up in his predicament, or series of crises, because he is too self-absorbed to take note of others’ reactions to his behaviour. But he’s not alone. It seems everyone else is the same, which is why nobody has any sympathy to spare for Victor. Everywhere he looks Victor finds a crisis, not only in his life but in that of friends and strangers he comes across.

The film is typical of Serreau’s work, a blend of farce, philosophy and sentiment which here is beautifully balanced, though the resolution is simplistic. I agree very much with the point of view expressed, and so I found the movie very funny but also very moving. It’s on my top 20 list.

Romuald et Juliette
Three years before La Crise Serreau made another film about a threatened business executive, this time a very unusual romantic comedy. If the title makes you think of Romeo and Juliet perhaps you’re not mistaken. Romuald is played by Daniel Auteuil; Juliette, his cleaning lady, is played by Firmine Richard: the acting is superb. Romuald is the owner of a yogurt company who is the victim of a corporate takeover – his chief executive plants evidence that suggests Vincent is responsible for producing contaminated food. Again Serreau has a point, a contrast this time between the vicious, cut-throat intrigue within Romuald’s company and the family life of Juliette, who has had five husbands and a child with each. Each husband is still in love with her but she lives a single life now, looking after her children and earning her living as a cleaner. Juliette overhears scraps of conversation, and finds scraps of paper which enable her to discover what is going on in the yogurt company and when she tells Romuald he is able to foil the takeover. In the process he experiences something of the life of Juliette and her family, and falls in love.

By making the female lead large, black and middle aged Serreau forces us to ask just what we want in a relationship and just what is the foundation of a successful one. The resolution to the story, like La Crise, is glib and a bit sentimental, but the film as a whole is wonderfully warm hearted.

Chaos deals with the relationship between the sexes in two contrasting milieux. It looks at the problems facing France’s immigrant population, and especially those faced by women in this culture. And it does these things in the context of an exciting crime melodrama guaranteed to have you on the edge of your seat. It’s probably Serreau’s best film, and if you can overlook some plot elements which are a bit contrived, also her best constructed film.

The film begins with an incident which drives a wedge between husband and wife, when a fleeing girl runs into the couple’s car and is dragged away and brutally beaten. The wife wants to help; the husband is more concerned about damage to his car, and drives away. Serreau is here criticising her country for refusing to deal with the plight of its Algerian population. The wife’s conscience is troubled by the incident, and she traces the injured girl and slowly learns her story, one in which forced marriage has been succeeded by forced prostitution. Together the women manage to outwit the repressive males, both those well meaning and the criminals running a prostitution business, but it’s never a foregone conclusion and the suspense is there till the end of the film. As usual Serreau ends on an upbeat note, this time of solidarity and affirmation.

Most of Serreau’s films that I’ve seen are interesting. Her documentary, Mais qu’est ce qu’elles veulent? – But what do they want, after all? was made in 1978. It was a compilation of interviews with women from various backgrounds. Her biggest commercial success was the comedy Trois hommes et un couffin (Three Men and a Baby), for which she received three Césars in 1986. It was remade in the US (I wish they wouldn’t do things like that) with Tom Selleck and those who have seen both say the French original is the better film. I found it well acted but too static and prone to rely on sentiment to move the film along. It was one of the most commercially successful European films of its decade. The sequel, 18 Years Later, was a complete waste of time, a rare misjudgment on Serreau’s part.

Serreau’s films are hard to get hold of outside France. There is an 8 DVD set that can be tracked down with a bit of effort (though several films included in the set have no subtitles: I wonder what market they were assembled for). Serreau is a major European director, so I hope this situation changes. Some information about her, and an appreciation, can be found at:


1977 Pourquoi pas!
1978 Mais qu’est ce qu’elles veulent?
1982 Qu’est-ce qu’on attend pour être heureux!
1985 Trois hommes et un couffin, with Roland Giraud, Michel Boujenah, André Dussollier
1986 Lapin Lapin (Rabbit Rabbit) – stage play
1987 Le théâtre de verdure – stage play
1989 Romuald et Juliette, with Daniel Auteuil, Firmine Richard
1992 La Crise, with Vincent Lindon
1993 Quisaitout et Grobêta – stage play
1996 La Belle verte
2001 Chaos, with Vincent Lindon, Catherine Frot, Rachida Brakni
2002 Il Barbiere Di Siviglia – Rossini
2003 18 ans après
2005 Saint-Jacques… La mecque
2007 Dix films pour en parler

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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