As far as late-career ruts go, Claude Lelouch has carved out one of the most comfortable, reliably crafting languid, tonally unpredictable slices of haute-bourgeois French life like a more anarchic Garry Marshall. For his 46th feature, “Everyone’s Life” (Chacun sa vie), Lelouch takes a cue from Marshall’s trio of multi-character omnibus projects, recruiting an even starrier than usual troupe of top-tier Gallic actors for a rambling outing in the Burgundy wine-country town of Beaune, and the change of scenery brings out both his best and worst instincts.
Spotlighting a dozen barely-written characters who face romantic complications during Beaune’s annual jazz festival, “Everyone’s Life” contains a few of the most effective individual scenes in the director’s recent filmography, as well as some of the most befuddling. At moments, the film passes as breezily as an afternoon nap after quaffing a bit of the region’s vintages; but more often it feels like sitting through an endless series of half-remembered shaggy dog stories screamed from across the bar by someone who’s had two glasses too many.
French rock icon Johnny Hallyday, last seen in the lead of Lelouch’s “We Love You, You Bastard,” makes a far better impression in a smaller role here, playing both himself and a dissolute Johnny Hallyday impersonator who haunts the Burgundy countryside, using his uncanny resemblance to seduce women and evade the local law enforcement. In the film’s funniest sequence, Jean Dujardin’s police chief encounters the faux-Hallyday when he’s hauled into the drunk tank, too blinded by fandom to realize he’s speaking to an impostor. It’s all building toward a predictable gag, but the scene is charmingly played, with both Dujardin and Hallyday flexing their considerable charisma.
These two compete for screen time with a plethora of scattered storylines — some last a single scene; most revolve around either a hospital or a courtroom (though we don’t learn who’s on trial until the very end); and all are exhaustingly tied together by an increasingly ludicrous series of connective threads that seem to have been improvised on the fly. The other players include a Patch Adams-esque doctor (Jean-Marie Bigard) who glides through the ER on a hoverboard with a card deck of dirty jokes; a lawyer (Julie Ferrier) who falls out of a window when she discovers her husband in the shower with a man; and a jazz singer (Liane Foly) who begins an affair with her in the hospital.
Nadia Farès plays an endlessly chipper jazz radio DJ, while Elsa Zylberstein limns an attention-starved country countess. The closest thing to a central narrative concerns an alcoholic lawyer (Christopher Lambert) who collapses in court, prompting his wife (Marianne Denicourt) and mistress (Mathilde Seignier) to meet over champagne to discuss how best to help him.
This matter-of-fact treatment of extramarital liaisons may strike Stateside viewers as charmingly French, but several of the film’s more minor threads fall so far afoul of contemporary sensitivity standards that it’s hard to grant them similar indulgence. A one-off scene featuring an amorous couple pulled over by the police head-fakes toward rather cruel misogyny, before pulling a last-second swerve into gay-panic. A bit of guerrilla theater involving an unfaithful French woman and her vengeful Muslim boyfriend plays with ugly, escalating racial caricature before dropping its punchline with an uncomfortable thud. And one sloppily-sketched plotline involving a prosecutor who is offered sex from a woman in exchange for letting off her rapist brother is truly remarkable in its miscalculation. Comment dit-on “unwoke” en français?
All of these vignettes, plus a few others beside, could have easily been left in the cutting room with scarcely any effect on the film as a whole, which struggles to be more than the sum of its few standout parts. Lelouch is well known for his generosity with actors, but his refusal to make tough decisions with final cut ends up underserving some of his best performers.
Deserving of far more screen time is the relationship between a middle-aged prostitute (Béatrice Dalle) and her “favorite client,” the town’s widowed judge (Eric Dupond-Moretti). She’s finally saved up enough money to leave the business and move to Provence; he’s secretly in love with her, and impulsively proposes marriage when he learns of her retirement. In the sweet-and-sour conversation that follows, the judge loses his authoritarian air and commences with puppy-dog begging, while the former escort drops her professional veneer and starts dispensing some hard truths. (When a prostitute calls a man her favorite client, she explains, that’s just the nice way of saying she despises him a little less than her others.)
A more disciplined film would have found a way to develop this relationship, or surrounded it with others of similar insight. But Lelouch can hardly wait to get back to the doctor on a hoverboard.