Movie Review: French leftists discover “Wonders in the Suburbs (Merveilles à Montfermeil)”

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The broad, satiric swipes of the French farce “Wonders in the Suburbs” are the only punches to land — or at least achieve “near miss” — in this flailing comedy of mores, values and leftist idealism put to the test of governing.

It’s nonsensical on several levels, with big subplots left undeveloped or twisting in the wind. And “Suburbs,” titled “Merveilles à Montfermeil” in France, is one of those comedies where seemingly every character has a poem at the ready to quote for any situation, and everybody has committed big passages of the writings of Victor Hugo to memory.

Perhaps that is “normal” in the suburb of the title. Monterfemeil, “an ancient and wonderous” if somewhat depressed, immigrant-rich corner of Greater Paris, plays a key role in Hugo’s masterpiece, “Les Miserables.”

For the first time in over 20 years, the local left has taken control of a place of high unemployment, many languages, many cultures and a long history of repression — official expulsion of immigrants and the like.

New mayor Emmanuelle (Emmanuelle Béart of “Un Coeur en Hiver”) and her administration hold a press conference so they can announce the sweeping reforms, changings and politically-correct updatings that recognize the problems of the place and how they will address them.

There will be not just casual Fridays. She announces “Shorts Day,”” “Kilt Day” and “Harem Pants Day.” A “Kimono Day” seems a given.

“Earth Day” will hereafter be known as “Bio Diversity Day,” and the big summer’s start festival, “Ascension” will be “Women’s Day,” and their annual summer fest transformed into “Brioche Festival.”

Oh, and there’s a “Naps for All” program that means no phone call will be answered during this French version of a siesta.

There are all these ideas about giving everyone foreign languages courses, a make work/create jobs project that will employ native speakers in the many languages present in town to instruct others in their longue.

They will reach out and try to find those immigrants forcibly removed by the previous regime. The city will conduct outreach to Arabs, Africans and Roma, some of whom will not be able to keep a straight face when they’re visited by Benoît (Mathieu Amalric) in whatever get-up is the city’s decreed dress of the day.

But sitting with the mayor on the council are Joelle, played by director and co-writer Jeanne Balibar, and Kamel (Ramzy Bedia of “Lost Bullet”) are going through a testy divorce.

Selim (Mounir Margoum) is a city employee who burns a lot of computer time on the dated online role-playing game on “Second Life,” messing up his sex life with council member Marylin (Marlene Saldana). She’s plus-sized and has to dress in Mexican luchador (wrestling) mask and costume, or as the “Ghostbusters” Stay Puft marshmallow man.

The two oldest members of this “new” council are older men who figure everybody will need their “sex therapy” advice program.

The mayor keeps a bust of Lenin on her desk, and is prone to meltdowns. Those break out in earnest when she starts getting ransom-note-style anonymous letters, warning her of disloyalty in her administration.

Kamel and Joelle bicker, and we pick up on her insecurity and his scent fetish — sniffing newly printed reports, men’s hair, etc.

There are conspiracies hinted at and commandoes sent in (!?), even as these Nanny State ninnies set out to fix a busted city by signing off every letter (in French with English subtitles) as “someone who’s here to help.”

I watch movies for a living, and there are whole swaths of this thing I couldn’t make heads of tales out of.  There’s precious little that plays as actually “funny” in a way a non-French speaker (or France-dweller) will easily pick up on.

Little if anything is resolved, a prolonged festival dance scene does nothing but pad out the running time and the scenes that pay off — telling the laughing, bullying, insulting Roma elder and his advisors what the town will “do for you,” for instance — are as rare actual laughs.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, adult situations.

Cast:  Jeanne Balibar, Ramzy Bedia, Emmanuelle Béart, Mathieu Amalric, Marlene Saldana and Mounir Margoum

Credits: Directed by Jeanne Balibar, script by Jeanne Balibar and Camille Fontaine. A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 1:49

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