Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Little Nicholas

Le Petit Nicolas is a film bathed in oneiric nostalgia: a fantasy realm of France (especially Paris) during the 50's and 60's when the desperate times of Occupation and the privations of the post-war reconstruction had given over to an unparalleled economic boom full of optimism.
But this is only a dream, having only an indirect rapport with reality. If the set and costume design clearly draw from accurate historical models, if Nicolas' old-fashioned primary school and his father's impersonal workplace have real antecedents, these are all - happily - gross caricatures.

I say "happily" for two reasons. First, this is a very funny movie. The stars here aren't the actors (Valérie Lemercier and Kad Merad are big headliners in France today); neither is the director (though Laurent Tirard's Molière was a pretty big hit); neither is the immensely popular source material. The stars here are the gags; and they're excellent. Tirard ferociously takes hold of the visual element of cinema and the situational incongruities that make great comedy to tap into everyone's love to laugh. Understanding the blitzkrieg-fast French (which can admittedly make it hard to keep up with the subtitles) adds another layer of charm and humor, but it really isn't necessary. This film is, in a way, a fabulous hypertext. But that's a subject for another time.

The film is also "happily" full of caricatures because it still has its profundities, lying just beneath its humor. There is no better satire than the world seen through the eyes of a child, whose priorities are different than those of the adults around him, whose hopeful imagination drives his actions more than his fear; whose worldview isn't entirely innocent, just different, perhaps simpler. Through the view askew, we can revel in our own memories of "simpler times" and simultaneously poke fun at adult life; that is, mock it; that is, criticize its absurd complications and torturous, sometimes unjust motivations.

The charm of this movie is Nicolas' opening invitation to take part of this view askew, to relish its joys (which aren't always that simple), to become children again without completely relinquishing an eye towards critical thinking, This is one of those films that makes you feel better, where you leave the theater with a smile on your lips. But in the car on the way home, the thought sneaks up on you: "Those absurd adults are kind of like me..."

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