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New Directors/New Films 2011: Copacabana

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New Directors/New Films 2011: <em>Copacabana</em>

A frothy fantasy dressed up as a quirky character study, Copacabana is a mishmash of mismatched parts that left me feeling a little queasy. Isabelle Huppert stars as Babou, the kind of boho free spirit who coasts as far as she can on sheer charm and sex appeal. She’s still childlike in middle age, not just because Huppert gives her the wide-eyed, unbroken gaze of a curious toddler, but because she operates on impulse, never stopping to consider the consequences of her actions. As a result, her daughter Esme acts more like her mother, working at a restaurant to pay the rent the job-allergic Babou can’t be relied on to scrape together. But when Esme (Huppert’s real-life daughter, Lolita Chammah) announces that she’s getting married and doesn’t want her mother at the wedding to embarrass her, Babou decides it’s time to get a job and show her daughter that she can be responsible.

We learn all of that in the first 10 minutes of the movie, and if you think it’s enough to guess which of them will learn what about the other by the closing credits, you’re right. Which might be just fine if this were Auntie Mame and we were primed for a mythic main character, a comically exaggerated supporting cast, and an imperial ban on any form of buzz kill. But writer-director Marc Fitoussi wants this valentine to a charming narcissist to be a lot more realistic than that one, so all his heavily foreshadowed plot twists, miraculous last-minute reversals, and unearned reunions fall flat, blocking the flow of his narrative.

Grabbing the first job she hears of, Babou is soon beating the sidewalks of a drab seaside town in Belgium, reeling in prospective suckers to be sold timeshares in a “luxury” condo. The shady operators in charge of sales move her into one of the empty units, which she shares with an epically resentful co-worker. Babou glides through this sterile, forbidding world like a baby in a stroller, watching everything as if from a great distance with those unblinking eyes.

Huppert is in almost every frame of the film, and she’s mesmerizing as always, creating a magnetic character out of what could have felt like a random collection of often irritating and thoughtless acts. She and her daughter, who looks like Kate Winslet from certain angles and radiates a similar vibe of earth-mother warmth and intelligence, have good chemistry together, and Aure Atika is wonderfully astringent as Babou’s hardbitten boss. But even they can’t make up for an unfocused and often unbelievable script. We see too much about things that don’t much matter, like the local guy Babou sleeps with once or twice and the homeless couple she sneaks into one of the condo’s empty studios (once again, if you think you know where that’s going, you’re right). Meanwhile, the important relationships in her life—with the best friend who wants to be her lover, the sister who resents her lack of interest in her life, and, most importantly, her daughter—are woefully underdeveloped. It’s as if Fitoussi, like Babou, can only concentrate on whoever’s in front of his face.

Copacabana will screen March 30 and 31 as part of this year’s New Directors/New Films.