Written by Tom Augustine.
I like to think that I keep up pretty well with the current film landscape, and the juiciest, most-promising arriving titles therein. Every now and then, however, I come across a film being advertised, usually in an independent cinema, that I’ve never encountered and which puzzles me to no end. You know the type – these are low-intensity offerings, typically from France or the UK, that feature smiling upper-middle class characters (regularly embodied by well-known actors – but not quite global celebrities) engaged in mildly discomfiting drama mixed in with a heaping dose of gentle, unassuming moments of comedy. There’s often a dog or some other cute animal. They come with a peculiar sense of (unearned) prestige, lacking the crassness of American work, despite their profound lack of anything remotely challenging. Indeed, these are exceptionally soothing films, their target audiences generally in older age brackets. They are known to be the lifeblood of a lot of independent cinemas, which is hardly a bad thing.
I call them ‘Cup of Tea’ films, for reasons I imagine are obvious. It’s not so much the comfort food aspect of these films that offends me, because we can all use a break from the despair of modern life, but that illusion of prestige. Mostly, these films seem to me to be methods of assuaging their usually reasonably well-off, older, white audiences, assuring them they’re watching something artistically rich but which ultimately provides overwhelming assent where their worldviews are considered. The most egregious and well-known of these is probably The Intouchables, an insidious little film that welcomes people mistaking its heart-warming platitudes for good filmmaking.
Middlebrow comfort food to a fault, the latest from French filmmaker Eric Bésnard is sumptuously shot and features warm performances from its two leads, but cuts itself off from any sense of real profundity with its fatal adherence to risk-aversion. Likeable in the moment, forgotten moments later.
There are ways these kinds of films can excel. The most important thing is to capture that specific blend of smooth comfort, like sinking into a warm bath. French filmmaker Eric Bésnard appears to have achieved a well-regarded Cup of Tea film in past years, with a film called Delicious, about a French chef. It’s not a film I’ve seen. A Great Friend is hardly the worst Cup of Tea film I’ve encountered – indeed at many moments it is entirely pleasant. It’s story is utterly predictable from start to finish – megarich tech entrepreneur Vincent (Lambert Wilson, most known for playing hilariously French villain the Merovingian in the Matrix films) comes into the orbit of a one-time microbiologist Pierre (Grégory Gadebois) now living a life of Thoreau-esque solitude in the French countryside after his car breaks down near his home. At first, the former is enthralled by the simplicity of the latter’s life, while Pierre largely considers Vincent with a distant and burbling sense of disdain. Naturally, their meeting was no accident – Vincent has engineered their meeting to attempt to lure Pierre back into a field he has since abandoned, researching plankton to find ways to utilise it for profit. As you can imagine, both parties inevitably find their worldviews challenged and changed as they grow closer.
A Great Friend starts on the backfoot, asking us to look upon Vincent and his life with, if not empathy, then sympathy. It is hardly the best time for a film about a caustic multi-millionaire asking us to see his side of the story, but A Great Friend generally smooths over these concerns due to a winning performance from Lambert Wilson. Usually a welcome supporting presence but not often in the spotlight, it’s enjoyable to watch him utilise his very specifically hyper-French charm as the energetic and often endearingly aggravating Vincent. Gadebois, meanwhile, makes for a strong sparring partner, their oil-and-water relationship the most interesting aspect of A Great Friend. When the two inevitably and fully bond as friends toward the end of the film, the chemistry of the two actors make for some scenes of genuine heart. Elsewhere, actress Marie Gillain, as Pierre’s love interest, leaves an impression with a relative dearth of scenes. Maximising the landscape of the French countryside to full effect, A Great Friend is sumptuous in its lensing, evoking a cosy, ‘wish-I-was-here’ longing in its magic-hour valleys of golden sun and green grass, and in its hearty thunderstorms.
A Great Friend is mostly harmless, as far as it goes. It is a sweet and largely unassuming film which highlights some good actors in lead roles that might otherwise not be featured in this way. Though its characters exist in a world devoid of true financial struggle or consequence, and their ‘dramas’ are so paper thin as to barely register as dramas at all, Bésnard’s desperation to not ruffle any feathers at all is largely successful. That’s kind of the problem, though. Watching, one wonders what could be made of a film like this if the punches weren’t pulled, if the calibre of performance and camerawork was matched by the intention of the film, the strength of the direction and the scripting. What a film is trying to achieve is ultimately the key metric in how we judge it – but isn’t it also fair to lament the more challenging, exciting and innovative films that go underseen or even unmade in lieu of work so unwilling to go that extra mile, peacocking as a work of genuine artistic quality? This isn’t the fault of any one film, or any one audience member, and A Great Friend is an unfortunate bystander of this train of thought. But in a film landscape of unbearable homogeneity, sometimes an alarm needs to be sounded.
A Great Friend in cinemas now.
A Great Friend
Movie title: A Great Friend (Bésnard, 2023)
Movie description: Middlebrow comfort food to a fault, the latest from French filmmaker Eric Bésnard is sumptuously shot and features warm performances from its two leads, but cuts itself off from any sense of real profundity with its fatal adherence to risk-aversion. Likeable in the moment, forgotten moments later.
Date published: August 24, 2023
Author: Éric Besnard
Director(s): Éric Besnard
Actor(s): Lambert Wilson, Grégory Gadebois, Marie Gillain