8/04/2008

French Postcards (1979)




Director:
Willard Huyck

As soon as the college exchange students arrive in Paris, they are advised to wipe everything American from their minds in order to fully immerse themselves in the sophisticated elegance of French culture.

While normally when the words are uttered by someone as alluring as Marie-France Pisier (Love on the Run), they should leave an indelible mark on her new young pupils, unfortunately the effect becomes comedic instead of philosophical when just shortly thereafter, she gets into a French language shouting match with their obnoxious tour bus driver. However as both a professor and co-director of the Institute of French Studies, consummate professional Catherine Tessier (Pisier) recovers flawlessly, flashing her trademark beguiling smile while segueing into the clich├ęd adage that the students will remember the time they spent there for the rest of their lives.

It’s the same sentiment that the blonde, neurotic, lost soul Laura (Baby Doll actress Carroll Baker’s daughter Blanche Baker) takes as a warning, scribbling endless postcards to David, her boyfriend back home in the states while keeping her sightseeing itinerary even more packed than her school schedule, promising both David and herself that she will see all 212 important French sites listed in the Michelin Guide. While Laura gives professionals specializing in travelogues a run for their money, her fellow students seem far more interested in researching Parisian l’amour as handsome Oberlin College exchange student Alex (Devil Wears Prada star David Marshall Grant) develops a stalker-like interest on Catherine, despite her marriage to the snobbishly rude Jean Rochefort (Man on the Train).

Unlike his nervous, indecisive but sweet roommate Joel (Howard the Duck’s Miles Chapin) who seems more contented to keep their elderly widowed caretaker company while watching Star Trek reruns in French, the aspiring musician David shares that he was so desperate to get the hell out of Ohio, he would’ve joined the Foreign Legion in order to get to Paris. While David continues to follow Catherine around the city, hoping she’ll share his feelings, soon enough David’s argument that Joel shouldn’t act like a prisoner since he’s in a foreign country, prompt Joel to make a bold move and telephone the independent-minded but adorable Toni (the sadly late Valerie Quennessen) for a date, which leads to hilariously unexpected results.

Filled with chance encounters and characters bonding with others they may not have given a second glance to if they’d met on their own American soil, this likably energetic and fast-paced romantic coming of age comedy boasts another fine script from talented, married American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom authors Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck (who also directed). In addition, French Postacards seems like a nice predecessor to Cedric Klapisch’s more allegorical yet similarly themed 2002 film L’Auberge Espagnole (a.k.a. The Spanish Apartment). Despite the fact that Chapin’s Joel does recall Richard Dreyfuss’ similarly indecisive Curt Henderson from Graffiti, while some critics have disregarded Postcards as a merely forgettable, French rehash of American Graffiti, that seems like a bit of a short-sighted dismissal to this reviewer who actually considers Graffiti to be one of her all-time favorite American films.

Featuring a young Debra Winger in an early supporting blink-and-you’ve-missed-it role, aside from excellent work by the young cast, the film’s ultimate scene-stealer arrives in the last thirty minutes of the film with the introduction of Mandy Patinkin’s admittedly stereotypical yet hilarious Iranian full-time travel agent, part-time womanizer Sayyid. Similar to his quotable (“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, prepare to die.”) work in The Princess Bride, Patinkin’s Sayyid helps pick up the pace when the film threatens to move into melodrama as the young lovers face romantic speed-bumps in their relationships. Intriguingly, while it would’ve been tempting for most writers to include a buffoon-like character late in the game as a mere diversion or to add to the film’s running time if they’ve begun to run out of plot points, the inventive Katz and Huyck actually utilize the actions of his character to propel the story forward. Incidentally, this leads to an interesting and much needed arc for the character of Laura, which I’d frankly never seen coming.

Originally produced by Paramount Pictures, despite the undeniable age of the film print, this overlooked 1979 classic is sure to resonate with college travelers today. It may also pick up additional momentum with its recent release on DVD by Legend Films, especially considering not only all the great talent involved (including Pisier and Rochefort) but those who may have seen American Graffiti one too many times and are in desperate need of a European change of scenery.