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There now exists an entire mini-industry of films geared for the Outfest audience, movies that cater to the gay community. This 2012 French picture is a crossover comedy with mainstream appeal. Issues of family and faith are just as important as sexual preference. The leading character's family and peers are accepting of his lifestyle and much of the film's humor is centered on questions of faith, not sex. The advertising and promotions for Let My People Go! liken its style and effect to Woody Allen and Pedro Almodóvar movies. As director Mikael Buch too closely copies those past masters, this really isn't his film's strength. What wins us over is Buch and co-writer Christophe Honoré's warmly observed performances, especially that of leading player Nicolas Maury. His nervous, inoffensive Ruben is instantly likeable, a legit personality as opposed to a receptacle for sex jokes. By the final fade out we're ready to see more of his adventures.
Frenchman Ruben (Nicolas Maury) and Finn Teemu (Jarkko Niemi) live happily in a Finnish neighborhood where Ruben delivers the mail. A mix-up with a registered package containing a fortune in currency leaves the recipient dead and Ruben in fear of the police; when Ruben won't turn himself in, Teemo sends him away. Ruben returns to his Jewish family back in Paris, which has its own stack of conflicts. Doting mother Rachel (Carmen Maura) accepts Ruben yet occasionally urges him to find a good girl and get married. His father Nathan (Jean-François Stévenin) has been carrying on a secret affair for twenty years. An uncle wants to get Ruben into the dry cleaning business, where his brother-in-law Samuel, a real hothead (Clément Sibony) already works. His sister Irène (Amira Casar) is convinced that she needs to divorce her 'goy' husband Hervé (Charlie Dupont), an ex-actor jerk who refuses to get a job. Ruben is unable to communicate his sense of romantic devastation, and is further confused when the family lawyer Maurice Goldberg (Jean-Luc Bideau) comes on to him, obsessing so strongly that he interrupts Passover. Samuel flies off the handle when Irène and Hervé fight, landing himself, Ruben and Nathan in jail, where Ruben finally finds somebody sympathetic to his romantic problems -- the police inspector. Will Ruben and Teemu get back together? What about that bundle of ill-gotten money? Is there happiness ahead for poor Ruben?
Watching Let My People Go!, we immediately link Ruben with Jacques Tati -- he begins as a neat-as-a-pin mail carrier in a little color-coordinated Finnish hamlet that seems to have sneaked in from a Tim Burton movie. Ruben has a definite swish to his mannerisms. He's such an inoffensive, distressed looking fellow that we can't help wanting him to be happy. Nicholas Maury's interpretation of the part is really not all that extreme. Ruben settles into his old room to stare at photos of movie actresses he loves, almost like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Just as in the Mike Nichols movie, Ruben's relatives try to make plans for his future; apparently nobody respects Ruben's college degree, a Master in Comparative Sauna Studies. But Ruben is too befuddled by his romantic woes to concentrate. He stares at a photo of Romy Schneider, which immediately morphs into the likeness of his blonde boyfriend Teemu. The Finn must be a gay's idea of heaven, as he's a cheerful forest ranger with blonde hair and an honest smile.
The picture is billed as the first French-Jewish-Finnish-Gay movie, which leads us to expect a freak show with a scattershot attitude toward comedy. It's much gentler than that. Ruben tries to tell lawyer Goldberg about his problem with the Finnish money, only to discover that Goldberg is gay, crazy about him, and doesn't take no for an answer. Ruben laments, "My life is one bad Jewish joke" and there's certainly a helping of ethnic humor. Momma Rachel attends a dance class for elderly Jewish ladies, in a room decorated with a large photo of Golda Meir. Irène fantasizes a cable TV commercial with Rachel as a saleslady for a product called "Jew-You Spray", with which she proceeds to convert Hervé into a happy Orthodox man.
But the core humor stresses ethnic solidarity and acceptance. Samuel's son Gabriel sings a prayer with Ruben, which starts like a setup for a joke, but ends up in a touching duet that tells us that Ruben is one with his religion. Rachel declares to her son that, "You're gay, I'm gay, everybody's gay until it's time to get married." She'll accept a nice Jewish boy though.
The movie's title refers to the Biblical Moses, who keeps popping up in the movie in different ways, firstly in a movie clip from The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston. A gay dance club is decorated in a Moses theme. Ruben calls Teemu "My Promised Land." At one point Ruben visits his rabbi, Ézechiel (Michaël Abiteboul). He asks if he can opt out of being Jewish for a while, just until he recovers his peace of mind. Uh, no.
The Finnish humor doesn't rate equal respect. Rachel keeps calling Teemu a Swede, and Sauna jokes abound. Mr. Tillikainen (Karl Väänänen), the man who gave Ruben the package of money, is a jolly old fool but not an intentional troublemaker. Did you hear that Finns are proud of their liberal attitudes? Teemu's mother once lived in a ménage à trois with two Senegalese prostitutes.
The visual stylization Let My People Go! does remind us of Pedro Almodóvar movies, which is not a bad benchmark to reach for. The only problem is that the film sometimes has that candy-colored look when it doesn't need it. The handsome sets certainly don't look derivative. Director Buch interjects comic fantasy material into the movie to shake us up, just as does the Spanish director. Buch does block out scenes in much the same way that Woody Allen does, perhaps with a little more cutting to coverage. His direction may not exhibit a strong personality, but neither characters nor comedy suffer.
Nicolas Maury is really pretty charming with an earnest screen presence pitched just slightly silly. Sometimes he looks like a morph of François Truffaut and Adrien Brody. Ruben wears looks of worry and despair in most scenes, yet never puts a damper on the fun. Although she's stressed in the advertising, star Carmen Maura's lively supporting role does not command a lot of screen time. Standing out from the ensemble are Jarkko Niemi's emotionally sincere Teemu, and Jean-Luc Bideau's Goldberg, a middle-aged delinquent carried away by his libido.
Perhaps the most Woody Allen-ish scene is the final one, which is blocked out almost identically to one of Allen's serio-comic shows from the late 1980s. The scene is warm and funny. In place of a joke, it leaves us with a good feeling about these people.
Let My People Go! is not like an American comedy that uses gay humor for easy laughs. For those need to know ahead of time, there's nothing remotely graphic in the film, but there are a couple of snuggling in bed scenes and semi-passionate kisses that might offend. But since Let My People Go! announces its subject matter up front and is far less raunchy than the average American comedy, this should not be an issue.
The Zeitgeist DVD of Let My People Go! is a great-looking enhanced transfer of this colorful show. It was reportedly filmed in Techniscope, the half-frame camera format that yields an anamorphic widescreen projection image when enlarged. That's surprising as I wasn't aware that anybody was still working in Techniscope... I expected to see credits for a digital camera system.
The sound is very clear. Removable English subs are present as the audio track is in French and Finnish. We're told that actor Nicolas Maury learned Finnish for his role. Zeitgeist includes the film's amusing original American trailer and a scrapbook-like design extra, Carnet de décors. It compares the set designs and research photo layouts to the final sets. It's a handsome production, to be sure.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Let My People Go! rates:
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