Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
See how Portman is making her big splash in Israel and don't miss Paper Towns with Nat WolffGo To Pop Culture
You might expect a film with the title God is Great; I'm Not to be heavy and metaphysical. But in actuality, its tone and rhythm are carefree and casual.
Opening to the lightly lilting lyrics of "What is This Thing Called Love," the film focuses on a romantic relationship between Michelle, played by the radiant Audrey Tautou (who starred in the international hit Amelie), and Francois (Edouard Baer).
A twenty-year-old model, Michelle has just had an abortion when the film begins. Although she appears distraught as she finishes work for the day, she soon lets herself get picked up by Francois, who follows her as she walks home. When we next see her, she is in the hospital, recovering from an attempt at suicide, which occurred right after her liaison with Francois.
While the abortion and suicide attempt could have been treated in a heavy manner, they are just briefly noted as the film and Michelle move along, flitting from one experience to the next.
Seeking tranquillity and the meaning of life, Michelle begins practicing Buddhism. One day she encounters Francois in the street, and they begin a three-year, on-again, off-again relationship, defined by both of their neuroses.
At thirty-two, Francois is as confused about his identity as is Michelle. Obsessed with the Holocaust, he reads books about it constantly. Yet, when Michelle, observing his obsession, asks him whether he is Jewish, he denies it.
Nevertheless, Michelle decides to study Judaism to see if it will answer her questions as to the meaning of life while also bringing her closer to Francois.
Told exclusively from Michelle's perspective, the film explores what it is like to try to enter the world of Judaism as an outsider, ignorant of its pervasive culture and age-old traditions. Although she buys a book with the title Judaism for Beginners and befriends an older Jewish man who teaches her about the religion, she finds it difficult to translate her book knowledge into reality. At one point, she lights a cigarette from a menorah that she has mistaken for a mere candelabra.
Francois suspects, correctly, that Michelle's interest in Judaism is yet another of her phases, and that she will soon move on to something else. Then, when she buys him a mezuzah, and, as tradition dictates, nails it to the doorpost of his apartment, he becomes enraged. A child of survivors, he has learned that it may be dangerous to broadcast his Judaism, a precaution that the younger, Catholic Michelle appears not to comprehend.
Despite Francois' professed lack of interest in Judaism, Michelle signs up for conversion classes. When the rabbi teaching the classes requires that Francois attend them with her, he reluctantly complies.
Michelle is an avid learner, but Francois is bored. She becomes a stickler for the rules, while he has no interest in observing them. In one amusing scene, Michelle comes upon Francois sneaking a chicken leg on Yom Kippur and tries to prevent him from breaking his fast. In another comic sequence, Michelle decides to refrain from driving or using the telephone on Shabbat, but avoids telling Francois why, as she knows her desire to observe Shabbat will annoy him. After she offers a series of bizarre explanations for not getting into the car with him, he finally understands her motivations and is utterly stunned.
Ultimately, Michelle's progress in understanding Judaism can't compensate for the couple's differences. After three years of their tumultuous relationship, the final break occurs during a visit from Francois' parents, who live in Israel. Their presence reminds him of his heritage, and the contrast between his parents' life-long practice of Judaism and Michelle's often misguided attempts at observance becomes too painful.
Pascale Bailly, the director, handles relationships in a complex manner, showing different shades of attraction, affection and ambivalence. By including scenes depicting the difficult dance Michelle and Francois each perform with their own parents, she alludes to the origins of some of their relationship problems.
As the film ends, we see that Michelle has grown. And indeed, the lines of the song that we hear at the end of the film--"I was so naive. I didn't know what time it was."--imply that a change in perspective has occurred. We trust that Michelle will take better care of herself in the future as she has identified her bottom line--she won't become involved with a man unless he is willing to have a child with her.
Bailly elicits excellent performances from her all-star cast. Audrey Tatou proves herself even more charming in this film than in Amelie. Also superb are Edouard Baer as Francois, the reluctant Jew; Mathieu Demy as Bertrand, a self-involved writer who was Michelle's previous boyfriend; Catherine Jacob as Michelle's depressed, dysfunctional mother; Philippe Laudenbach as Michelle's selfish step-father; Cathy Berney as Michelle's sister Florence; Julie Depardieu as Michelle's friend Valerie; Saskia Mulder as Francois' mother; Laurent Natrella as Francois' father; and Max Tzwangue as another of Michelle's boyfriends.
If you're in the mood for a light but wise, charming, and amusing film, check out God is Great; I'm Not. And don't be surprised if you find yourself still thinking about it days later.
While I saw the film at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, you may find it at your local Jewish film festival or at an art theatre near you.