Cherchez Hortense (Looking for Hortense, 2012)

I’ve seen this film, directed by former Cahiers du cinéma film critic Pascal Bonitzer, described in a few places as a “comedy”, but I find it difficult to rationalise it as such. There are comedic moments, and lead actor Jean-Pierre Bacri has a sort of rumpled comic charm to him, but the story seems to take place in a quite different register. Themes of relationship trouble and divorce, single-parenting, artistic creation, depression, repressed bisexuality, the legal system, the abuse of power and immigration play in and out across its many scenes, few of which betray an essentially comic worldview.

There is, as is suggested by the themes listed above, an interesting film in here — there’s probably a few interesting films — but it’s difficult to get a sense of what exactly the finished work is trying to do. It takes most of the film before you start to understand what the central drama is, let alone what the title is alluding to. Of course, the more I think about it, the more I think this narrative diffusion was very much intended — the title does begin “Looking for…” after all and the character of Hortense is so minor as to be a MacGuffin — but the experience of watching it unfold is perplexing.

In part this is because it’s a shame not to see more of Kristin Scott Thomas. This is the third film I’ve seen her in this year at the cinema (after Dans la maison and Only God Forgives), and her acting is as watchable as ever. She plays Iva, a theatre director married to the protagonist Damien (Bacri), who lives in a gorgeous centrally-located Parisian apartment with him and their bespectacled and all-too-earnest son Noé (he disapproves of his mother’s smoking). Iva has a sort of brittle and febrile quality, which the chain smoking perhaps assuages, though her unhappiness is plain from the relatively little time she spends at home, and in the end finds herself in a relationship with an actor in the play she’s rehearsing. In any case, she gives the film an energy that it elsewhere lacks.

Bacri is fine as Damien, though he doesn’t entirely convince as an expert in Chinese civilisation (which he teaches to business people in a rather brutalist classroom), or as the primary caregiver to their son. As mentioned above, he has an unshaven haunt about his rumpled face that perhaps befits a man working through some serious relationship ennui — both with his unfaithful wife, but also his dismissive father, a very senior civil servant — but it propels him towards a younger attractive woman called Aurore (Isabelle Carré). He bumps into her several times in the first half of the film — too many times for it to be simply chance. Indeed, she takes a larger role as the film progresses, and her story touches on the treatment of immigrants (she is from Serbia and works as a dishwasher in a restaurant) and offers Damien the attractive possibility of redemption from his ennui, though for a man who looks as he does, I’d be surprised if that were really possible.

In any case, for a film with so many threads, it wraps them all up rather neatly. The narrative may be trying at times, but what happens is all acted with the professional sheen of an older-fashioned film with some provocations but little that is truly challenging. It remains a likeable endeavour, but as viewers, in a sense we are left still looking for something, and I’m not sure finding out who Hortense is really satisfies.

Director Pascal Bonitzer; Writers Agnès de Sacy and Bonitzer; Cinematographer Romain Winding; Starring Jean-Pierre Bacri, Kristin Scott Thomas, Isabelle Carré; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Saturday 17 August 2013.