Ivan Calbérac brings a touching, well-constructed adaptation of his hit play L’Etudiante et Monsieur Henri to the big screen with 79-year-old Claude Brasseur in fine form as a grouchy old man forced into sharing his apartment with Constance, a penniless student. On the face of it, the story has nothing original, but the plot throws a few curve balls and the obvious chemistry between Brasseur and the young Swiss actress Noémie Schmidt raises the film to another level making it funny and moving in equal measure. Add a cast of excellent secondary characters including Guillaume de Tonquédec (SMS) as Monsieur Henri’s hapless son Paul and Frédérique Bel (Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au Bon Dieu) almost unrecognisable as Paul’s mousey wife Valérie and the stage is set for nearly two hours of pure, if admittedly old-fashioned, entertainment.
Due to his fragile state of health, Monsieur Henri (Brasseur) can no longer live alone in his Parisian apartment and reluctantly agrees to rent out a spare room to a student (Schmidt). Far from making an effort to welcome the young woman into his home and help her adjust to life in the big city, he decides to use Constance to carry out his malevolent plan to destroy his son’s marriage to Valérie.
L’Etudiante et Monsieur Henri is in essence a classic tale of the older generation passing on the wisdom of their years to today’s youth. Except Monsieur Henri and Constance are very alike. Henri feels he’s missed out on the opportunity to lead the life he wanted, while Constance’s self-doubt fuelled by criticism from her father has led her to the same conclusion. Fortunately Henri cannot change which gives Calbérac the room to avoid the temptation of revealing the tender heart that beats beneath Henri’s tough exterior. He isn’t moved by Constance’s lack of money or academic failure. And he’s way to bitter to see the error of his ways or too proud and selfish to make amends. This edge to his character allows Calbérac to step around the clichéd and overly sentimental. Constance is no angel either – she lies with consumate ease and accepts Henri’s unpleasant suggestion to ruin his son’s marriage without too many qualms. The dialogue refflects its theatrical roots and is punchy, full of subtle barbs and whips along at a fine pace.
Claude Brasseur is excellent as the misanthropic Henri and his gravelly baritone voice and talent for both comedy and pathos is the same scene is reminiscent of the great American actor Walther Matthau. He’s more often found on TV screens these days and Calbérac’s film is a welcome chance to see him in the cinema. Brasseur is probably best-known internationally for his role as Sophie Marceau’s father in the hit 1980’s filmLa Boum (The Party). That film introduced Marceau to cinemagoers and likewise this is Schmidt’s first major cinema role. She has the same freshness and innocence as the young Marceau and similarly looks set for a long and successful career in film.