House of Cards

Ugly Americans move into The Château

Jesse Peretz, founding member of the Lemonheads, has made the transition from musician to filmmaker over the past decade or so by way of music videos, commercials and MTV interstitials. His debut feature, an adaptation of Ian McEwan's First Love, Last Rites, won an award at the Rotterdam Film Festival and got limited release in 1998.

Peretz's sophomore effort, The Château, should prove marginally more commercial--an occasionally funny but overall limp, fish-out-of-water story. The fish in this case are Graham Granville (Paul Rudd) and his brother Allen (Romany Malco), newly arrived in France and on their way to lay claim to the château they've just inherited from a relative they never knew even realized they existed.

It seems that their great-uncle, Count Jacques Granville, has recently croaked, and by some quirk of French law they are his heirs. Their eyes full of dollar signs--or, I suppose, euro signs--they arrive unannounced at the estate to the confusion of the servants, who still reside there.

It is a source of further confusion for the servants--and for the audience as well--that Graham is pearly white and Allen is strikingly black...an oddity that is explained away with a single line about Allen being adopted.

It soon becomes clear that both sides in this "family reunion" are in for a disappointment. Great-uncle apparently died deeply in debt; there is less than no money to cover the staff's salaries and the taxes or to provide upkeep for the property. Graham and Allen see their windfall turn into an albatross before their very eyes. And the servants, who were expecting these presumably rich American relatives to rescue them, bitterly realize that their long-awaited saviors are a half-witted slacker and a wily but impecunious hustler.

The moon-eyed Graham wants to figure out a way to sell the place, while rescuing the staff; the more realistic Allen just wants to unload it for the best price, take the money and run. But soon both of them are swayed by infatuation with the appealing maid, Isabelle (Sylvie Testud), the unmarried mother of a young son.

There are a number of potential avenues for humor within this setup, yet Peretz seems content to concentrate on only one, which he drives into the ground--the moron joke. That is, Graham is an exaggerated version of how the French view Americans (or perhaps how Americans think the French view them)--a blundering nincompoop who thinks he can speak French but can't.

For perhaps half an hour, this gag is pretty funny. Rudd finds a whole raft of ways to mutilate the language, the drollest of which is pronouncing English words with his idea of a French accent, as though that will make them easier for the natives to understand.

But the joke soon grows tired. And the film offers very little else to keep us going. There isn't much by way of progression: Most of the comic scenes could be shuffled in a different order without doing much violence to the whole. Near the very end there is a sudden burst of minor plot developments that prove confusing, pointless or both.

At the center of this, there is one point of interest--the character of Isabelle. Because of the language barrier, the maid says very little, yet Testud manages to imbue her portrayal with a sense of reality that is absent from the rest of the movie's caricaturish players. She seems to be a refugee from another, probably better, film.

Cinematographer Tom Richmond--who has done first-rate, even inspired, work for Alex Cox and Keith Gordon, among others--shot The Château on digital video, and sadly it may be one of the ugliest digital productions we've seen...horribly murky and grainy. Richmond's presumably subsequent digital work on Ethan Hawke's soporific Chelsea Walls was vastly better.

 
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