Movie Review: A French “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” romance, and its aftermath — “Waiting for Bojangles”

Whatever the stylistic charms of Olivier Bourdeaut’s acclaimed novel, the film version of “Waiting for Bojangles (En attendant Bojangles)” offers further proof that “manic pixie dream girls” exist in France, and not just in the person of Audrey “Amelie” Tautou.

It’s about a dizzy, star-kissed romance between two freer-than-free spirits and the child they give birth to and raise in the hippiest “free range” tradition. The novel tells this story through the eyes of the child, and in his voice. That’s not the way the film unfolds.

Director and co-writer Régis Roinsard invites us into a fantasy world of carefree love, lying as performance art and “unbridled imagination” — all made possible because of (one guesses) family money. Nobody works in this fictional bubble, and yet endless parties, extravagant living quarters and mountains of bills can pile up because no one can or should be bothered to pay them.

It’s a world with no visible means of support, a world where a couple can “meet cute” and discover “our song” on his baby blue 1958 MGA car radio motoring their way to a madcap “marriage on impulse” at an empty roadside chapel.

Because that’s how free spirited “Name me as you wish” Camille (or “Antoinette,” “Rita,” etc) and the rakish rogue George (Romain Duris) roll.

The fact that “our song,” which we hear over and over again in the film, is “Mister Bojangles” and Jerry Jeff Walker wouldn’t get around to composing it until ten years after that 1958 opening is immaterial. We’re on the fringes of magical realism and perhaps relying on a child’s misremembered memory. After all, young Gary (Solan Machado Graner) was only conceived that night. He wasn’t really a witness.

We meet Georges as he seems to be crashing this posh patio party overlooking the Mediterranean sunset, thanks to his stubble (a lower-class trait and another 1950s Riviera anachronism) and ever-evolving lies-as-conversation starters. He was Josephine Baker’s lover “during the war.” He is Romanian and “you might have heard” (in French with English subtitles) of his ancestor, “Count Dracula.”

He spies the stunning blonde across the way, dancing as if no one’s watching, and is warned away by his old money family friend (Grégory Gadebois). Camille (Virginie Efira) will “drive you doolally,” is the warning. “She dances on the edge of a precipice.”

It’s already too late. Smitten Georges floats into her dance, leads her into an extravagant tango and fills her ears with colorful lies. She lies a little, too, as she barely takes notice of her new dance partner until the mob descends on him after uncovering his fibs. She sticks up for him, and they’re off , with her standing up in the tiny sports car as her diaphanous Grace Kelly-in-“To Catch A Thief” dress (Chanel?) billows in the breeze.

It was meant to be.

Over the course of the film, we see Georges indulge her every whim and eccentricity as she indulges his — among them, giving birth to his baby. It’s only when their boy reaches the age of 10 or so that the problems surface. Nightly parties, which their son attends, making him miss school, keeping a stork for a pet, doing almost everything on a whim — is that a sane way to raise a child?

Any viewer watching this and taking in the impulses, the bubbly mania and stress-free kick-their-problems-down-the-road lifestyle of these two-now-three, is almost certain to remember the manic pixie dream girls you’ve known, real life versions of Katherine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby,” Streisand in “What’s Up Doc?” or Zoey Deschanel in just about anything.

I’ve been blessed with knowing four, by my perhaps-generous definition of these intoxicating free spirits. And as “Bojangles” takes its sobering turn towards “serious,” I couldn’t help but recall that three of the four died young.

Camille purposefully taking a walk down the street in the nude can be indulged by Georges, who dashes out, strips and joins her. But as one dinner party guest suggests when Camille strips off her panties to make an angry point, “She’s lost her mind.”

“Is Mom sick” the boy wants to know? “No more or less than most people” isn’t the most honest answer.

Duris, a star since “The Beat My Heart Skipped” and a screen heartbreaker since “Heartbreaker,” is at his dashing, sweep-you-off-your-feet best here. Georges dances, charms and lies like his life depends on it, like his whole shtick is a lie. He positively swoons over Camille (we get it). Duris sizzles in a Spanish flamenco production number in the third act.

And Efira (“Benedetta,” “Sink or Swim”) so cranks up the energy and the sexual allure for this woman that her dazzling beauty and devil-may-care spirit make her irresistible to pretty much any straight man you can think of, who would throw caution to the wind just to bask in her presence.

“I never fell in love before,” he pleads, after chasing down the MGA she caused him to crash, and then stole the morning after their “wedding.” “Don’t deprive me of such a delight.”

That’s the spirit of “Waiting for Bojangles,” the first half of it, anyway. Even the most irresponsible excesses — allowing Gary to decide he won’t attend school…at 10 — seem reasonable as this couple-and-child skip by on a years-long contact high that they share with us.

The second half is dark and more “reality” based, and manages to be a drag and drag dramatically as well. Perhaps mimicking the novel’s point of view and structure (Dad’s diary entries and Gary’s memories of his folks) would have helped.

But if you know the song that underscores this romance, know the Jerry Jeff and Sammy Davis Jr. and Nina Simone versions of it, you get what the novelist and the filmmakers were going for here. Reality is melancholy. Imagination and memory are our escape from it.

Camille explains it best. “When reality is sad and banal, make up a fantastical story” and live in that.

Rating: unrated, nudity

Cast: Romain Duris, Virginie Efira, Grégory Gadebois and Solan Machado Graner

Credits: Directed by Régis Roinsard, scripted by Romain Compingt and Régis Roinsard, based on a novel by Olivier Bourdeaut. A Blue Fox release.

Running time: 2:04

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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