A nostalgic look back at a more tolerant France

An excellent ensemble cast makes this bittersweet, funny look at a summer camp in early Nineties France fun to watch.

french film 88 298 (photo credit: SND)
french film 88 298
(photo credit: SND)
NOS JOURS HEUREUX - *** Written and directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. Hebrew title: Yamim Yafim. 103 minutes. With Jean-Paul Rouve, Marilou Berry, Omar Sy, Lannick Gautry, Julie Fournier, Guillaime Cyr, Josephine de Meaux, Jean Benguigi, Jacques Boudet An excellent ensemble cast makes this bittersweet, funny look at a summer camp in early Nineties France fun to watch. It's a portrait of a kinder, gentler time, one in which both the counselors and campers are from many ethnicities and religions, a situation hard to imagine in the conflicted France of today. But although there are some touches that are especially French in the story, anyone who has ever been a camper or a counselor will recognize familiar situations and moments. It's the kind of low-key, gimmick-free comedy - no children and adults swapping bodies, no foul-mouthed Santas, no time travel, no elaborate parodies a la Austin Powers - that used to be a staple of American movies but that have long since moved to European and Latin American cinema. The modesty and straightforwardness of the story are its virtues. So is the filmmakers' honesty: While there are touching scenes as some of the characters experience a cathartic moment during the course of the summer, the filmmakers never lose sight of some central truths about summer camp. One is that it can be lonely and miserable, both for campers and counselors, to suddenly have to deal intensively with a large group of virtual strangers. The second is that any camp experience involves a great deal of discomfort. There is some nostalgia for a more innocent time, but it isn't overdone. The central figure in the story is Vincent, the head of the camp who hasn't quite grown up himself. Vincent is played by Jean-Paul Rouve, who also starred in co-directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache's previous film, Just Friends. He's a recognizable type, halfway between a harassed adult and an impervious kid, although it's the childish side of him that is on display as his father accompanies him to the train station to pick up his campers at the film's start. At first, it's a toss-up whether looking after the campers or managing the counselors is his biggest challenge. There are many stock types on hand here, but the filmmakers eventually give them all a twist. The staff consists of the cocky Daniel (Lannick Gautry); the delicate, pretty Lisa (Julie Fournier), who seems to think she's on vacation herself; Caroline (Josephine de Meaux), who is so shy she can barely get out a sentence; Nadine (Marilou Berry), the zaftig, dreadlock-wearing medic who hasn't passed her medical course; Joseph (Omar Sy), a black counselor whose joviality borders on stereotype; and Truman (Guillaume Cyr), a boring French-Canadian. They are all fed an oily Middle-Eastern cuisine by the Moroccan cook, played by Jean Benguigui, who was one of the fathers in the Israeli film Turn Left at the End of the World. The campers are a similarly mixed bunch, with the typical shy guy/gorgeous girl intrigues livened up by a motormouth nerd obsessed with death, a smug Belgian aristocrat and a boy with intense behavioral problems who turns out to be the son of a famous psychologist who keeps showing up to check on him. Rouve holds it all together with a low-key intensity. His camp counselor isn't bad at running a summer camp, but he can't get his own life together and is too shy to approach Lisa. Berry, the star of Look At Me and a comic gem about an Orthodox girl, The First Time I Turned 20, again proves she is the most original French actress of her generation. Although she is heavier than is accepted for actresses and not conventionally beautiful, she has such self-assurance and wit that when Joseph falls for her character, it's perfectly plausible. One slightly less plausible aspect of the film is that the camp is so mixed ethnically. While I'm certainly no expert on French summer camps in the Nineties, the model for this one and the mindset behind the movie is obviously Jewish. The coddling, overly involved parents, the precocious kids and the clannish feeling behind the whole enterprise feels more Jewish than anything else, but for reasons of their own, the French-Jewish filmmakers chose to make it a non-denominational camp. The movie would have been stronger if its characters had had a clearer identity, but this modest comedy still has charm.