Antoine de Caunes... remember him?

You probably do from his long stint as the host and presenter of Channel 4's Eurotrash, a weekly magazine programme that delved into the dirty and downright weird of European culture and ran between 1993 and 2007, and previously as presenter of BBC2's cultural magazine programme Rapido in 1988. Since then, de Caunes has become a respected actor and director.

One of his first successes, bagging him a César nomination for Best Actor in 1999, was in writer-director Jean-Jacques Zilbermann's  Man is a Woman (L'homme est une Femme Comme les Autres, 1998).

There he played Klezmer musician Simon Eskanazy, an Orthodox Jew struggling with his gay identity, continually drawn to young men, visiting gay saunas and eventually becoming attracted to his uncle's son but constantly forced to conform by his orthodox family. When he rejects his conservative family's pressure to marry, his father, a Parisian banker, cuts him off completely. Simon does eventually marry and secures his inheritance but the marriage to Rosalie falls apart and she departs for New York, pregnant with his child.

Zilbermann picks up Simon's story again in 2009 with He's My Girl (La Folle Histoire D'Amour De Simon Eskenazy) which sees Simon, living in Paris's vibrant multicultural area of Château-Rouge, now tackling the pressures of a successful recording career and the entanglements of his love life. As the film opens we see him already in the throes of an affair with the young Raphael (Micha Lescot), a married man.

Torn between two lovers (and definitely feeling like a fool)   
As he struggles to finish his latest recording, he also falls for a young Arab, Naim. Torn between two lovers (and definitely feeling like a fool) his life is completely turned upside down when he is forced to care for his mother, recovering from a recent fall, during the torrid heat of the summer in his cramped apartment.

As his agent and promoter Arlette heaps pressure on him to finish the record and commit to a tour in America, his mother's demands throw him into a period of confusion and inertia, unable to make decisions about his future or what he intends for those he loves. After his mother rejects her latest carer, Simon returns home one afternoon to find Naim, dressed as a woman and masquerading as Habib, caring for the tetchy invalid.

Gradually he sees how the gentle and warm Naim transforms his mother's bedridden life. However, the past he felt he had dealt with some ten years previously is returning to haunt him as his ex-wife Rosalie, now a respected singer, and their ten year old son return to Paris. Old prejudices begin to surface and the tensions between him, the chameleon-like Naim and his other lover Raphael start to mount.

... resisting the melodramatic
Swirling beneath the obvious charms of this film are a number of quite complex issues about religion (the differences between Muslim and Jew are certainly central to the theme), faith, prejudice and the nature of family, identity and belonging. Simon seems adrift for much of the film, very unsure about his career, his role as an openly gay Jewish man and his estranged relationships with his mother, ex-wife, father-in-law and now a ten year old son.

Gradually, Simon does seem to find some rapprochment with the complexities of his life. How he achieves this perhaps doesn't completely endear him to the viewer and certainly a number of reviewers have found the character rather disagreeable and unsympathetic.

To a degree this interpretation could be acceptable - although he seems to care for Raphael he does seem to abandon him half-way through the film, leaving him alone in a hotel room, and then rather insensitively brings him back to the apartment where all three gay men, including Naim in drag as Habib, uncomfortably encounter each other. Yet, he doesn't seem that bothered about Naim's anger and jealousy.

However, the relationship with his son, Yankele, blossoms with Naim's help and he seems to find a moment of acceptance with his ex-wife Rosalie until the pressures of Jewish orthodoxy once again force him to make a choice between seeing his son and not seeing Naim. His wavering faith is expressed in the musical tradition of the Ashkenazic Jews, one symbolised by the clarinet he plays on his bestselling recordings, in the one he bequeaths to his son and in Pascal Mayer's score that permeates the film.

De Caunes is rather good and provides the film with a quiet, restrained performance. The farcical elements are not smothered in the histrionics of say La Cage Aux Folles and the dilemmas that Simon faces are realistically portrayed. Some critics seem to regret that de Caunes doesn't spend the film camping it up but they clearly do not understand the tone of the film.

Yes, it is gently and appropriately funny but it's aim is to soberly reflect upon these issues. Just as Simon begins to accept that Naim has revitalised his mother's attitude to life, she unexpectedly dies. Again this is symbolic of the film's insistence in resisting the melodramatic. It happens, he deals with it and you do root for him even though throughout the film he clearly makes some stupid decisions, including his partial failure to find some sort of closure with his mother before her demise.
Mehdi Dehbi pretty much owns the film
The film's major fault is that, while the characters are interesting, the themes that inform the film are also left to drift in the background in as much the same way that Simon himself tends to drift through the story.  Zilbermann gets you thinking about the sexual and multicultural issues but steadfastly refuses to provide many answers. It's a very open ended study.  It certainly applies to Simon's relationship with the quicksilver Naim, a young Arab whose own identity is enmeshed in issues of race, ethnicity and identity where he slips into various female personas throughout the film - drag waitress, sensitive carer, wedding guest and lover - and also maintains a grasp on his cultural origins.

Mehdi Dehbi, as Naim, pretty much owns the film and he lights up the screen with his presence, his androgyny capable of embracing the thoroughly male and female aspects of his appearance and personality. The drag/trans elements are again dealt with as a matter of fact and the film makes much play out of Naim's ability to pass as various women through the film, his confidence suggesting a sexual fluidity that both Muslim and Jewish faiths might find contentious and that generates some of the prejudice seen at the heart of the film. His on screen chemistry with de Caunes is delightful and they are supported by some amusing and heartfelt performances from Catherine Hiegel as Simon's agent and Judith Magre as his mother Bella.

A gentle, unassuming film that slowly builds up the connections between the characters, very well performed (de Caunes is a bit of a revelation), and romantic without being too precious about it. It manifests its themes with perhaps too great a subtlety but they offer some interesting food for thought about a multicultural society that struggles to accept all irrespective of sexuality, gender, religion or age.

He's My Girl (La Folle Histoire D'Amour De Simon Eskenazy)
BAC Films 2009
Released 14 February 2011 / Network DVD / 7953454 / Cert 15 / 87 mins approx / Subtitles: English / Sound: French - Stereo / Region 2 / 16:9 / Colour

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