[22 October 2007]
With My Best Friend veteran French director, Patrice Leconte, of The Man on the Train and Intimate Strangers, gives us a comedy in the classical sense of the word, minus the slapstick and gross-out humor that has been defining the comedies of current American cinema. A film for people who think, as well as laugh, it’s a shame it wasn’t more widely released in theaters here, but its DVD release, complete with a making of featurette, should garner some attention.
François Coste, played deftly by Daniel Auteil, is a gallery owner and a dealer of antiques. His character is very clearly outlined for us in the very opening scene. He attends a funeral to do some bargaining with the deceased’s widow. For François the world is made up of objects, those that are valuable and those that are not, and the people who populate this world are not friends, but contacts. So it’s a bit of a mystery when Coste attends an auction and bids furiously on an antique Greek vase that tells the story of The Iliad’s famed friends, Achilles and Patroclus. The tale goes that at the death of Patroclus, Achilles was so inconsolable that he filled this vessel with his tears and placed it in his friend’s tomb.
Over dinner after the auction, François is describing the scantily attended funeral to his business partner and the other assembled diners, when one guest interrupts his story saying there will be even fewer people at his funeral, because he has no friends. As a result of this accusation, François finds himself goaded into a bet in which he must either produce a best friend in the next ten days, or forfeit his newly prized vase to his business partner Catherine, played by Julie Gayet. Catherine appears throughout the film, as an Athena-like figure (reimagined as a well-dressed French lesbian) to remind François of the shortcomings of his seemingly cold heart.
It is she who arranges all of the lessons he will learn, through will as well as coincidence. Gayet plays well against Auteuil, but she is written a little too formidably to give her the warmth that might have made her role more successful. If François is heartless, Catherine is herself a bit too chilly and all knowing to be likable. It is assumed that the audience will like her, but this feeling is never earned and so she becomes more of a device and less like the Greek goddess she emulates, who was quite human in her emotional range, unlike Gayet’s overly stoic Catherine.
But overdone as she is, the points she makes are usually correct. As the bet continues, François searches high and low for a friend, even making a list of potential candidates. This list strangely does not include anyone in his immediate life, like Catherine, or his daughter, Louise, or his lover, which explains his problem. These people are in his life, but outside of his notice. And so it is Bruno (Dany Boon), a personable taxi driver he has encountered by chance a couple of times, who becomes first his teacher, and then his friend. Boon and Auteuil are a perfect pair on screen, with Boon playing up his character’s endearing eccentricities in contrast to Auteuil’s tailored detachment.
A sort of opposites attract chemistry develops between their characters that is delightful to watch, but friendship is not a concept that comes easily to François, and so he manages to muck things up quite a bit before figuring them out. As François falters, Leconte is able to expound on the philosophy behind friendship and pose questions about what defines friendship, how people become friends, and how friendship differs from acquaintance. For some, like Bruno, this indefinable thing comes naturally, and for others, like François, it is nearly impossible, perhaps because he so desperately wants to define it like one of his commodities.
However, even our optimistic Bruno remarks at one point that being friends “with everyone is the same as no one. We’re all alone.” A dark thought in a usually light film. In this way, Leconte adds complexity to what could have been a mere situational comedy, and Boon brings depth to his character, showing us that there are no absolutes, and helping us understand the connection between Bruno and François.
Because of the questions it raises and the lessons it attempts to impart, the film becomes much like one of the Greek myths, where the plot has been contrived to help illustrate a deeper issue. And just as in the myths, the plot twists of the film are no ordinary occurrences. To say any more would be a spoiler, but as in myth it’s not the plausibility of the plot that is important, but rather the journey that it takes us on and the questions that ensue.