Once you read what Stay with Us, the new movie by the famous French standup, Gad Elmaleh, is about, you probably won’t want to finish this review but maybe you should.
Elmaleh, a Moroccan-born Jew, is one of France’s most popular comedians and was voted the funniest person in France. He has also received a prestigious honor from the French government and starred in a number of French comedies. Eventually, he moved to America to try his luck there. He made fun of his attempts to transfer his standup fame to the United States in the Netflix series Huge in France and the comedy special Gad Elmaleh American Dream, which are still available to stream. He has directed several movies but Stay with Us is by far his most personal film.
But here’s the thing: Stay with Us, which opens in theaters around Israel on Thursday, is the story of how Elmaleh, who was raised in a very traditional Moroccan Jewish milieu, developed a consuming interest in Christianity and returned to Paris, planning to convert and how his family coped with the news. It’s clearly a semi-autobiographical film, given that he plays a standup returning from the US named Gad and that his parents, Regine and David, as well as his sister, Judtih, all play themselves.
Elmaleh, who wrote the film with several collaborators, knows that this is a movie that will make the Jewish filmgoing public uncomfortable but he wants it to be seen. So he makes sure it is full of his trademark brand of comedy shtick. Much of the comedy, especially the many scenes involving his parents, is very funny.
Winning deadpan delivery
His father, David, has a winning deadpan delivery and has appeared in a number of films in the past. While Regine embodies every Jewish mother stereotype, she does so with grace and a smile that could melt glaciers.
Part of the comedy is how Elmaleh, a man in his 50s, takes pain to hide his newfound attachment to Christianity. He plans to stay in a hotel during his brief visit to Paris but his parents can’t bear the idea of his paying Parisian hotel room rates – even though they know he can well afford it – and they convince him to stay in his childhood bedroom. Naturally, his mother barges in but when he slams his laptop closed, she assumes he was watching porn, while he was actually streaming a Christian religious festival. There are a number of gags in this vein.
Taboo subject: Religion in France
THERE ARE also shots of his standup gigs at a small comedy club where he jokes about what a taboo subject religion is in France, which made me think that he might want to move to Israel if that truly bothers him. But all kidding aside, he doesn’t quite know what to do with the movie when he shifts the action to his conversion process. He meets several others planning to convert and starts to participate in a number of ceremonies that somehow will gauge his readiness to embrace Christianity. They are an attractive group and are portrayed very sympathetically, particularly a Muslim who has tried to live as a Protestant before choosing to become a Catholic.
Eventually, Elmaleh meets a gorgeous young Christian woman (Olivia Jubin) who is only too happy to sort things out for him. Conveniently, she has a cranky but cute father who provides Elmaleh with a good foil for his comedy and they actually trade quips while he washes the old man’s feet.
It turns out that Elmaleh became fascinated with Christianity as a child when he was forbidden to enter churches and snuck into a church in Casablanca. There, he was drawn to a statue of the Virgin Mary and he still feels some kind of comfort from images of her. But the script doesn’t go much deeper than that. There is no sense of whether or how Christian philosophy might appeal to him in a way that Judaism does not. He talks to two rabbis, one is a traditional Orthodox rabbi and the other is a female non-Orthodox rabbi, who encourage him to explore his interest in Christianity. They don’t scold him or preach to him about why Judaism is better and they reassure him. I was expecting a punchline but he just sits and smiles at them.
It’s hard to know how much is truly autobiographical and how much is just him telling an entertaining story but there seems to be something missing from the heart of this film. At least one of his romantic partners, Charlotte Casiraghi, the granddaughter of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco, was not Jewish and they have a son together and it might have been interesting to know whether having a non-Jewish child had anything to do with his interest in Christianity. But none of this is mentioned in the film and we just have to accept that his mother warmly embraces the young Catholic girlfriend without a hint that they are used to him being involved with non-Jews.
In the end, this engagingly made film does not quite work either as a serious study of why a Jew might decide to convert or as a comedy. It’s a heartfelt plea to accept the fact that some Jews will be attracted to Christianity but that might have been expressed better in an article. What’s left is something, well, kind of parve and I imagine that is the last thing Elmaleh intended when he set out to make Stay with Us.