LuxFilmFest / Film made in Luxembourg

Lovelessly cobbled

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 04.03.2022

Cinema can be both an escape hatch and a place of refuge. Its many stories may be, at best, a palpable help to get through difficult times and can offer moments of identification. That’s the implicit promise of the ‘septième art’. The main character in Nicolas Steils new film Le chemin du bonheur has taken this very promise to heart and even turned it into some kind of personal religion.

Saül runs a Delicatessen, a Jewish deli in the Belgian capital in the 1980s, where he offers delicacies from the old country to his colourful clientele of Brussels film students. But despite everything going rather well, he is still haunted by his past nearly four decades after the end of the war. And for good reason. He was part of a Kindertransport from Vienna to Brussels, lost his parents during the war and grew up in an environment that felt foreign to him. With the young waiter and budding filmmaker Joakin, Saül decides to try and turn his childhood memories into a screenplay and possibly a film, with the hope of channelling his love of cinema in a productive way – rather than just being a walking film encyclopedia available at any moment’s notice. Meanwhile, Saül also gets his head turned upside down by a mysterious woman who has to live with a similar past – and whom he doesn’t seem to be reaching in the way he would like.

Again and again – more often than not, to be perfectly honest – you find yourself in front of a keyboard really struggling to summon up inspiration for a film review. Finding inspiration for writing about a film that left you indifferent is challenging, as the meh!-effect of a feature usually affects the writing. But the situation in the case of Le chemin du bonheur is completely different. How may one write a review, bring forward arguments and try to express them in a researched and thoughtful manner, if the cinematic object at the centre of the review itself does not seem to be researched and thought through at all?

Nicolas Steil’s Le chemin du bonheur, his second directorial effort after Réfractaire in 2009, attempts to work on several levels at the same time as it reflects on the Jewish experience and survival of the Second World War, while simultaneously allowing a love story to blossom.

Furthermore, the film intends to be a heartfelt love letter to the movies and its history. However, the screenplay, based on Henri-Roanne Rosenblatt’s novel Le cinéma de Saül Birnbaum – he himself co-authored the screenplay along with Steil and Michel Fessler – stumbles between these three narrative dynamics every other minute and from scene to scene. It connects them only very haphazardly. Nothing has been done to at least visually support the geriatric bingo rounds in terms of cinephilia. The film is as wooden and lovelessly cobbled together as the set of the café in which most of the film’s action takes place. Not even a rudimentary use is made of the artificiality of the set in order to make it a sincere declaration of love to Hollywood.

The only ray of hope can be found in the casting of Simon Abkarian. His demeanour and his big smile offer a hint of the charm and reminiscence of old Hollywood and its stars, who are otherwise only ever mentioned in boring, repetitive dialogue sequences. But, alas, even the Armenian-French actor does not succeed in bringing this two-hour agony to life. Everything plods along while even the slightest hint of conflict is resolved – not to mention the denouement of the plot between Saül and Hannah. During all of this tedious yet perhaps well-intended boredom one wonders why the budget of over 6 million euros (!) was raised to produce this film. It’s perhaps cynical, but it could be argued that Saül’s character isn’t as much of an alter ego for director Steil as Eric Caravaca. The French actor stars in Le chemin du bonheur as a film star who initially agrees to be part of Saül’s film cast and play the main part and producer, though he is firmly convinced that it will flop – a flop that will enable him to get his money back from insurance companies. Did Steil think the same thing?

Unfortunately Le chemin du bonheur finds no way of honouring its love for cinema. One can only shake one’s head in perplexity at the reflections on the Shoah and its survivors.

The Luxembourg premiere of Le chemin du bonheur will take place during the Luxembourg City Film Festival, on Sunday 6th at 7pm at Kinepolis. There are several conferences and round tables planned around the official release date on March 23rd.

Tom Dockal
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