RIEN A FAIRE (Empty Days)

Directed by Marion Vernoux. France. 1999.

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French cinema has long produced authentic working-class characters. From Renoir in the 1930s (Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, La Bete Humaine, etc.), through practically all Jean Gabin’s well-known roles, to New Wave movies like Les 400 Coups and Les Bonnes Femmes, and 1990s masterpieces like La Haine, The Dream Life of Angels, and the Franco-Belgian Rosetta, class and social protest have always been a major concern, with utterly believable characterisations of the little person.

The latest example is Marion Vernoux’ Rien a Faire, an official entry for the 1999 Venice Film Festival and known in English as Empty Days. It is particularly noteworthy for a truly stunning performance by Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi as Marie, an irrepressibly cheerful long-unemployed housewife in a Pas-de-Calais council flat who spends her days entering competitions on the radio, reading horoscopes in trashy magazines, trying to lose weight, having driving lessons without success, and wandering around the local supermarket. It is there that she meets Pierre (Patrick Dell’Isola), a recently redundant executive from (it transpires) the same factory where she worked, and what follows is a subtle and moving exploration of a relationship between two people separated by class with all its unquestioned assumptions. Pierre’s momentarily pained expressions at some of Marie’s remarks, unnoticed by her, show us how incompatible the two are, however inevitable the ensuing affair seems. When, for example, he explains how supermarkets cleverly use music to induce more purchases, Marie protests "But I like the music".

Their regular daytime meetings over the following few months are unsuspected by either Marie’s husband, a militant trade union activist with whom she shares contentment but little real affection, or the divorced Pierre’s partner, trying to maintain their middle-class lifestyle with her own job. Both Marie and Pierre still seek jobs, and it is only when he eventually succeeds, thus restoring his own self-respect, that it becomes clear that their affair must end.

The film is largely a two-hander, and although Dell’Isola’s performance is excellent it is Bruni-Tedeschi’s freckled face on which the viewer’s gaze is transfixed whenever she is on screen. This is not because she has any particular beauty, but because of her utterly convincing portrayal of a type of woman we are all familiar with in Britain - totally straightforward, honest, limited in education and aspiration, living in something of a fantasy-world, and taking everything at face value. The facial mannerisms are just right, the occasional mix-up of words seems perfectly in character, living "in a world of romance like a high-rise Emma Bovary" as the director (who also co-scripted) said in an interview. At the couple’s first accidental meeting it is Marie who seems over-bold, probably through innocent trustingness, while Pierre clearly does not want to become acquainted.

In fact we learn from Marion Vernoux (whose previous films were Nobody Loves Me and Love, etc.) that she spent a long time creating the character of Marie, fleshing her out, deciding what her daily habits would be, before discovering that Bruni-Tedeschi fitted the bill perfectly. Vernoux found Dell’Isola the same way, an actor with a somewhat secretive and defeated look who could portray the frustration of an unemployed executive battling with the, to him, unknown world of the supermarket (apart from his knowledge of selling techniques), where his screwed up shopping list sits in his pocket as he forgets to take his bag away afterwards.

The film’s title, literally "nothing to do", refers to Vernoux’ idea that two people with time on their hands through unemployment will tend to gravitate to each other simply to fill in for the boredom. So it is an exploration of the link between economic inactivity and romance, with the extra ingredient of class thrown in.

I have one major complaint about Rien a Faire, relating to the camerawork. The film adopts the irritating and distracting fashion of a wobbly hand-held camera, in the style of Breaking the Waves, when there seems absolutely no point in doing this. The technique, which possibly dates from early Godard, may occasionally be appropriate (one example is the aforementioned Rosetta, whose documentary-style urgency makes it entirely in keeping) but Rien a Faire is not that kind of film. Otherwise, the ‘Scope camerawork by Dominique Colin is most handsome, although the film is not what would be called ‘cinematic’ and would perhaps be better suited to the TV screen.

So Rien a Faire is a film which maintains the viewer’s interest throughout, with a terrific performance by the female lead, but don’t say you weren’t warned about the camerawork!

Alan Pavelin

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