Director/writer/actress Agnès Jaoui is often compared to Woody Allen. I can see why: Her talky, often obnoxious protagonists generally come from or aspire to the cultural elite, the observational humor that suffuses her films lightens even some of the darkest scenes, and she has a way of touching lightly on deep issues in movies that at first appear to be interested only in the daily concerns of a small clan. But if I were going to compare her to an American filmmaker, it would be Nicole Holofcener (Please Give), who has those same things in common with Jaoui and then some.
Maybe because they’re women, Holofcener and Jaoui root their movies in the shifting sands of interpersonal relationships, while Allen’s pictures tend to explore the internal landscape of one (usually male) protagonist. Maybe that’s also why the questions Jaoui and Holofcener raise aren’t about the big existential issues that torment Woody, whose characters are always ruminating about the meaning of life. Instead, they’re about things that devil us on a day-to-day basis: like class, race, gender, and social mores. And surely it’s why, like Holofcener, Jaoui generally puts women at the center of her stories, though her films include plenty of sympathetic men—including Michel, Let It Rain’s likeable loser, who’s played by Jean-Pierre Bacri, Jaoui’s creative and life partner (he co-wrote and stars in all three of Jaoui’s films).
Michel is an incompetent filmmaker. At first he seems relentlessly annoying, but we come to see him the way a former producer describes him: as a good person who just isn’t good at doing anything much. He’s making a documentary with Karim (Jamel Debbouze), a hotel clerk who wants to be a filmmaker. Karim is supposedly learning from his former teacher, though in fact he’s much smarter and more gifted than Michel. Tasked with filming accomplished women, they decide to start with Agathe (Jaoui), a self-involved feminist author who’s running for political office.
The deftly woven story introduces us to the characters two by two, only gradually revealing how closely they’re all related to one another as they experience a series of little events, which are sometimes serious, sometimes absurd, and sometimes both. Every time you’re about to decide it’s not adding up to anything much, the tone shifts and you’re hooked again, watching relationships teeter on the edge of collapse or come back together. As in life, things change all the time, and often because of something as minor as a chance encounter. Karim’s relationship with a co-worker, for instance, switches from indifference to infatuation one day when he snaps at her as she comes in, follows her into the coatroom to apologize, and hears her crying on the phone.
There’s some funny stuff, including a running joke about bad filmmakers as Michel finds endless ways to botch his documentary and puff up his resume (his claim to fame, we learn, is a movie he made about bullfighting from the point of view of the bull.) Agathe, who is far from perfect but doesn’t deserve the criticism everyone heaps on her, is an object lesson in how hard we are on independent women, particularly if they call themselves feminists. And Karim and his self-effacing mother, Mimouna (Mimouna Hadji), who has been a live-in servant to Agathe’s family for her whole adult life, provide a window into the exploitation of ethnic minorities. But what Let It Rain illuminates best are the little pleasures and discomforts of middle-class life. In one of my favorite scenes, Agathe waits in a farmer’s house with Michel and Karim after they’ve driven to the country to shoot an interview and gotten stranded due to Michel’s imcompetence. Agathe has missed a rally where she was supposed to give a speech, the farmer is gazing at her from just inches away as if he wants to eat her, and she has an earache that aspirin can’t help. She barely speaks, but her agony comes through loud and clear. It’s funny, yet you feel for her too, and that combination is the essence of a Jaoui movie.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.