American Jewish comedian Mort Sahl, invited by producer-director Otto Preminger to a preview screening of his 200-minute epic Exodus (1960), stood up after three hours and cried, “Otto, let my people go!” No such plea was necessary by audiences at 29-year-old Mikael Buch’s first feature, which moves rapidly for an entertaining 96 minutes.
Let My People Go! (the monolingual title) was one of 11 films in the European First Feature competition, all of which fell under the rather wide definition of films d’amour. They included love between father and son (The Mole /Kert/ – Poland), parents and son (Shelter /Podslon / – Bulgaria), two adolescent girls (She Monkeys /Apflickorna/ – Sweden), and surrogate father and son (Martino’s Summer /L’estate di Martino/ – Italy). Let My People Go! is much closer to a true film d’amour, being ‘boy loves boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy’. The lovers are Ruben (Nicolas Maury) and Teemu (Jarkko Niemi), the former is French and the latter Finnish, although Ruben’s family insist on calling him Swedish.
The idea of a Frenchman as a postman in Finland, who speaks perfect Finnish, is the first comically surreal notion of the film. The couple break up – due to a rather unconvincing plot device – and Ruben returns to his Jewish family in France. The father and mother, who run an unsuccessful dry cleaning business – every item is either lost or ruined – try to get Ruben to settle down in a job and with someone else – preferably a Jewish boy. He has a sister who married outside the faith and a macho brother, with whom he has nothing in common, but with whom he is later reconciled in a tender, unsentimental scene. There are a lot of gentle satirical swipes at the Jewish family, goys, gays and Finland – Teemu’s mother accuses her son of being bourgeois for not being more promiscuous.
Let My People Go! is carried by Maury, who plays the role straight. He is sad, vulnerable and funny without ever losing the reality of the character. In fact, the film (co-written by Buch and Christophe Honoré) avoids the traps of stereotyping and vulgarity that this type of broad comedy usually falls into. (I hate to think what would happen if Hollywood remade it, a nightmarish possibility.)
There are times when it comes close to being Woody Allen meets Pedro Almodóvar. One is reminded of the Spanish director not only because of the camp tone, but because the excellent supporting cast includes Carmen Maura as Ruben’s mother, remembered for her roles in Almodóvar’s movies of the 1980s. The veteran Swiss actor Jean-Luc Bideau turns up surprisingly as Maurice Goldberg, a widower lawyer who takes a shine to Ruben. Actually, the film is full of surprising twists and turns including a mock TV advert that promotes a spray that turns people into Jews.
The purely French production was shot in France and Finland in bright colours by cinematographer Céline Bozon, giving it a stylised look that suits the gay (in both senses) subject. It made a change for a festival jury to give a prize to an out-and-out comedy, albeit with the important subtext of tolerance, because serious art and solemnity are not necessarily synonymous.
Ronald Bergan, member of FEDEORA Jury