The Grand Role (January 21/06)
Featuring a high-concept premise that feels as though it'd be more at home in a mainstream American film, The Grand Role is an engaging (albeit extremely low-key) romance revolving around the lengths to which a man will go to keep his dying wife happy.
Stephane Freiss stars as Maurice, a struggling actor who learns that a famous American director named Rudolph Grichenberg (Peter Coyote) is planning on shooting a Yiddish adaptation of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice in Paris. Along with his friends, Maurice auditions for the role of Shylock - which he eventually wins, much to the delight of his wife, Perla (Berenice Bejo). But when Perla announces that she's dying of cancer, Maurice doesn't have the heart to inform her of Rudolph's last-minute decision to cast a famous American in the role instead. Maurice, having decided that the truth would be far too depressing for his frail wife, concocts an elaborate ruse in which he and his friends pretend as though he's still got the part.
It's an awfully silly storyline that somehow works, thanks primarily to Steve Suissa's nimble direction and Freiss' effective performance. The inclusion of several outwardly comedic set-pieces certainly doesn't hurt, with a sequence featuring Maurice's kidnapping of Rudolph (following the director's refusal to go along with the scheme) an obvious highlight. And although the film's opening half hour comes off as haphazard and needless (particularly in terms of Maurice and Perla's love/hate relationship with a nosy Jewish couple that lives in their building), things finally pick up in the second act with the introduction of the central storyline.
The Grand Role works as long as one doesn't think about it too much - ie why doesn't Perla confirm Maurice's involvement with Rudolph's production on the internet? - and is generally kept afloat by the undeniably charismatic performances (something that's especially true of Coyote's scene-stealing turn as a Spielbergian filmmaker).