Forty years ago, Fiona (Fiona Gordon) was living in the mountain village in the North of Canada with her aunt Martha (Emmanuelle Riva), and loved to spend time with her and hear of her relative's desire to stay in Paris. Well, one day that dream came true, and Martha left the village to start a new life in France, but Fiona? She stayed where she was, though they kept in touch via letters. However, after a while she had not heard from her aunt for some time until she was sent a missive that some kind soul had fished out of a bin; it was somewhat soiled, but readable, and she was able to make out the message: Martha was in trouble, and could Fiona get to her as soon as possible?
Comedians Dominque Abel and Fiona Gordon had been a team, professionally and romantically, since the nineteen-eighties, but it was not until the twenty-first century that they began to make their mark on the cinema world with comedies that could best be described by that over-obvious word "quirky". That term can excuse a multiple of precious sins, but it did not necessarily mean you were always in for an entertainment that was going to make your teeth itch, and with their biggest movie The Fairy they began to assemble a cult following. This was possibly because while there was much that was cute in their material, there was also a slight edge in the tone for texture and bite.
So while Fiona (not exactly playing herself, though technically she is Canadian and that is her name) was a figure of fun for much of the running time, we were made aware that she was often not enjoying being the butt of life's cosmic jokes, and would much rather her adventure in Paris was working out a lot less abrasively. She certainly looked the part of a comic actress, her awkward appearance belying some nimble movements (see the dance scene in the restaurant, for instance), but what of her partner Abel, a Belgian by birth (this was a truly international union), was he up to snuff? Thankfully, though he looked less eccentric than his wife, they were perfectly matched in style.
Abel would use his clowning techniques for the physical humour, though it was accurate to observe this was not pure mime, as they included a dash of verbal gags as well: the funeral sequence where Fiona and Dom wind up at the wrong ceremony was precisely the right kind of ridiculous for something that could have been bad taste with less skilled handling. But how do they meet, and who is this Dom chap? He is a homeless man we are introduced to as he emerges from his one-man tent and relieves himself in the Seine, in full view of a boat load of pleasure cruisers, which should give you some idea of his coarser qualities, and as Fiona's ill fortune would have it he is the man who finds her backpack after she loses it in the river. Why does she lose it in the river? Because she fell off a bridge while asking a local to take her picture.
It was that sort of film, but what made it charming, or more charming, was the presence of Riva as Aunt Martha, who Fiona is led to believe has died in between writing the letter and her niece’s arrival in the French capital. Riva was of course a great dramatic actress known for her long career in works such as Hiroshima Mon Amour or Michael Haneke's Amour, for which she was one of the oldest people to be nominated for an Oscar, so it was pleasing that her last film but one should be a silly comedy with so much goodwill and heart. It was genuinely sweet to watch Riva applying herself to the serious business of comedy, and doing it with such lightness of touch, as if she could have been as adept at humour as this movie's guest star Pierre Richard made a career out of: their foot dance at the cemetery summed up the mood in that it acknowledged life could be a grave undertaking, therefore it was all the more important to find the laughter in it. If it was a shade too slight, it was winning for all that: you didn't want it too heavy anyway.