“THE STUDENT AND MR. HENRI”— Henri and Constance

“The Student and Mr. Henri” (“L’Etudiante et Monsieur Henri”)

Henri and Constance

Amos Lassen

Ivan Calbérac brings us his film a adaptation of his hit play “The Student and Mr. Henri”. Henri (Claude Brasseur who at 79 is in excellent form) is a grouchy old man forced into sharing his apartment with Constance (Neomie Schmidt), a penniless student. We might think at first there is nothing really original here but surprises await us as does great chemistry between the two main characters. The film is equally funny and moving.  We get two hours of pure, old-fashioned entertainment.

Because of his fragile state of health, Monsieur Henri (Brasseur) can no longer live alone in his Parisian apartment and reluctantly agrees to rent out a room to a student.  He makes no effort to welcome the young woman into his home and help her adjust to life in the big city— he rather has something else in mind. He decides to use Constance to carry out his malevolent plan to destroy his son’s marriage to Valérie.

Basically, this is a classic tale of the older generation passing on the wisdom of their years to today’s youth.   There is a slight difference here, however. Monsieur Henri and Constance are very alike.  Henri feels he’s missed out on the opportunity to lead the life he wanted, while Constance’s self-doubt (having been overly criticized by her father) leads her to the same conclusion. They both decide to really live now. Henri isn’t moved by Constance’s lack of money or academic failure and he is much too bitter to see the error of his ways and too proud and selfish to correct them. Constance lies with consummate ease and accepts Henri’s unpleasant suggestion to ruin his son’s marriage without too many qualms.

Because she has no cash, Constance accepts Henri’s offer of a free room if she can drive a wedge between his son Paul (Guillaume de Tonquedec) and his airhead daughter-in-law Valerie (Frederique Bel). Constance deploys her seductive skills and soon enough the forty-something Paul is falling for her. Not only that, he begins dressing in cool leather jackets, clubbing and sending text messages in slang. Even more interesting is that bitter old Henri who is usually misanthropic and graceless, sees his defenses crumble before Constance and her sweet nature. Henri is a former accountant, filled with regrets about what might have been. He tells Constance not to make the mistakes he did and to enjoy life and pursue her dreams.

Claude Brasseur is excellent as Henri and he shows both comedy and pathos in the same scene in this intergenerational comedy that deals with the themes of the difficulty of housing, especially for young people, family conflicts and relationships, the fear of making a mess of one’s life at any age, middle age crisis, the temptation of adultery and the courage to follow dreams.

Noémie Schmidt as Constance is very convincing as a young provincial student who is cursed by her panic fear of examinations. This does not prevent her from being successively full of life, playful, sensual, generous and courageous. Her main flaw in the story is her lack of confidence, to the extent that when she fails her retake exam at the university, she lies to her parents because she feels ashamed of herself. Her budding friendship with Mr. Henri is touching. Especially when Henri pushes her to develop her musical skills.

Guillaume de Tonquédec as Paul, a man who would like to get along with his father and he is disappointed that Henri despises him and never accepted his marriage with Valérie also turns in an excellent performance. When he meets Constance, he starts to lose his inhibitions and reawaken his youth.

Frédérique Bel is Valérie, the perfect bigoted and goofy wife of Paul. Her silly thoughts, her false air of maternal complacency and her cheesy attitude are fun to watch. This is a movie filled with charm, emotions and incredible situations.