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In the Courtyard / Dans La Cour (2014)

CRUMBLIES…4 crumblies

Catherine Deneuve. Nuff said, old Jack is in. Oh, the trouble I got into with Mrs Jack for popping to le cinéma français back in the day. Well, Mrs Jack is gone, I’m in advanced decrepitude and Ms Deneuve…ah, she plays pensioners now, but characterful and heart-breaking ones. Old Jack cleared the TV room of tutting women and Brexiteers to bask in this, an unexpectedly human story of said pensioner bonding with the new janitor in their block of flats. She’s in her 70s, he’s a flabby mess in his 40s. No sex, just sympathy and a salve to each other’s panic. A salve that goes too far… Dans La Cour.

Gustave Kervern is Antoine. Wrecked by life as a singer, he abandons his last show, walking away in search of peace and oblivion. I recognised the feeling: one day too many at the office in 1970s and old Jack hid in a café until month-end had gone away. Antoine loses it rather more completely. He takes his middle-aged nihilism to the job centre and lies his way (badly) into becoming le gardien of a past-its-best block of flats. There he hides from his world, but can’t hide the kindness in his soul. He lets a random Russian leave his dog there in a set of gently comic scenes. He tolerates a bicycle-thieving druggie resident’s pile of contraband in the courtyard. He quietly lies to the architect on the third floor, who is certain he’s hearing a dog in the night… Antoine’s days become a tapestry of new connections.

Ms Deneuve is newly retired, filling her days with the building’s management, and getting pissed at Antoine. She can’t bring herself to confront him, but happily throws fruit at him from the top floor when his hosing down of la cour gets too noisy. Well, I say ‘happily’. Deneuve’s Mathilde is disintegrating as well…

And here’s the surprise of the film. She seems so controlled up front, but this turns into a second essay in nihilism. I wanted the flirty and powerful Deneuve of old, instead I got an old friend startled and scared to be on her emotional uppers. Mathilde fades from view, hiding from the world. At first she is guilty for what she has done to Antoine, then befriends him as penance, then grows obsessed with a giant crack in her wall which he is tasked to paper over… Mais oui, la métaphore arrive.

The performances are naturalistic, beautiful and bittersweet. Each star carries the sadness of their age’s difficulties. Antoine is bumbling through his new world, using drugs to numb his days then puking and whimpering back into focus; Mathilde is simply disappearing behind a self-imposed dementia. Her obsession with the building leads to formal structural tests, escalates into gathering locals with similar worries, to a flinchingly embarrassing moment in the courtyard: residents and locals observing the emotional gulf between Mathilde and husband Serge (Féodor Atkine gives good pity and desperation), and between Mathilde and common sense. Her humiliation and Serge’s anger leave her hiding in Antoine’s flat. Been there, burned like that…

And that’s pretty much it. Dans La Cour doesn’t go much deeper, which is a shame. Old Jack basked in its Gallic balance of affronted humour, bustling loners and Deneuvish style, but it could have gone further with each person. The gaggle of character parts around the stars make for sweet essays, but stop short of carrying plots themselves. And the arcs for Antoine (down) and Mathilde (mostly down, but with a flash of hope) are too simple to be resonant beyond the closing credits.

But old Jack liked this film a lot. I knew the urge to hide – to almost have it forced on you – as youth dies and old age then takes you to the floor. Seeing this played out with humour made me reflect on the things that saved me in the day: Mrs Jack came and got me from that café, young Steve and Jacketta’s kids wrenched me into meaningful old age. What awfulness could have been without those connections? Well, watch Deneuve’s Mathilde rant her way around her modernised childhood home, terrorising the new incumbents, and you’ll know the answer.

Give Dans La Cour a go. It doesn’t go all the way, but is just deep enough and revealing enough to poke the no-longer young in our complacent faces.

Get thee to Amazon Prime Video, mes amies.


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