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Culture Reviews
Mauvais Esprit
35 mm 
By Dena May Fisher
Dirty nappies and sleepless nights – they seem a small price to pay for the joys of becoming a parent. But what if your baby is crying and taking pleasure in watching you lose sleep? What if it actually aims to vomit on your new business suit? Have you ever wondered if your baby is intent on making your life hell?
More to the point though, if that were the case, would it really be funny?

Now don’t get me wrong! I’m not averse to a bit of black humour, and I’ve chuckled through my fair share of slapstick fun. But despite a strong cast and a semi-ambitious plot, Patrick Alessandrin’s Mauvais Esprit is a disappointing example of French Cinema if not at its worst, then certainly no where near its best.

Simon Variot (Michel Muller) is an all-round loser: illness forced him to drop out of his Architecture degree course, he can’t find work, his girlfriend is cheating on him with his best friend…and in the pouring rain he sees that his design for an Olympic stadium has been poached by a hugely successful construction company. Intent on gaining credit for his work, Variot storms into the office of the company Director, Vincent Porel (Thierry Lhermitte), only to be frog-marched out of the building, then hit and killed by Porel’s speeding car. At the moment of his death, an angelic intervention ensures that his spirit is transferred into the body of Porel’s new-born son, allowing Variot to become the evil tormentor of the man who ruined his former life. What follows is 60 minutes of cringe-worthy farce, in which Porel Junior attempts various methods of self mutilation in order to cause pain and grief to his doting father.

It must be said that the concept is actually quite interesting: Most sleep-deprived parents have, at some point or another, toyed with the idea that their child is not sleeping simply to spite them, and that a toddler will go out of its way to do something dangerous because it has a death wish! A script based on that exact scenario, giving a perverse nature to the actions and sentiments of our beloved little bundles of joy, will no doubt strike a chord of recognition with most adults. Also, in a crude sort of way, it is inviting us to challenge some of the universal truths which govern our everyday life: A baby has to be nice. A mother will necessarily be maternal. Why not explore the possibility that they’re not?! Fine.

The thing is, we’ve had the genuinely funny violent kid in ‘Home Alone’, we’ve seen the adult/baby swap in ‘The Acid House’, and as far as the baby-with-a-voice act goes, well even the awful ‘Look who’s talking’ was mildly amusing in its day. Mauvais Esprit simply fuses these tried and tested formulas together, without managing to add any noteworthy advances on what has already been achieved. The special effects are barely disguised, the jokes are predictable, and frankly, I don’t quite know if Alessandrin even knew which audience he was aiming to please. By trying to imitate Hollywood, he also forfeits the quirkiness and originality we have come to expect from good-quality French films.

However the one saving grace is in the brilliant casting and high standard of acting. Lhermitte, more used to playing the funnyman, is totally convincing in his role of ruthless businessman and doting father. As ever, his mix of good looks and sheer professionalism means he is a pleasure to watch. The singer/actress Ophelie Winter is indeed perfect as the spoilt, rich, far from maternal Mme Porel, whose on-going conflict with her hideous mother-in-law (played stunningly well by Maria Pacome) provides us with some of the most memorable moments of the film. Even Junior’s voice-over by Michel Muller manages to redeem the sometimes funny, but all too often uninspired scripts.

So, if you’re idea of fun is watching a toddler trying to play with lawnmowers and drink cleaning fluid, then this is the film for you: some of the action will raise a smile, and parts of the dialogue will be amusing enough (although I can’t imagine the Russian subtitles could do justice to the jokes).

If you’re having doubts about your young child, by all means go – this might explain a few things!! But for those of you who want to see some worthwhile French cinematography, I’d say that to see Mauvais Esprit would be une mauvaise id?e!

12.05.04
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