He’s My Girl
Directed by Jean-Jacques Zilbermann
Starring: Antoine de Caunes, Mehdi Dehbi, Elsa Zylberstein, Judith Magre, Micha Lescot, Taylor Gasman
Written for Subtitled Online:
It's been over a decade since Antoine de Caunes broke through the French cinema barrier with a starring role in Jean-Jacques Zilbermann’s Man is a Woman. Zilbermann and De Caunes -- who earned a Cesar nomination for his depiction of closeted, married gay man Simon Eskenazy – return with “He’s My Girl,” a sequel which sees Simon much more settled in his new life, and with significantly different emotional problems to conquer.
While “Man is a Woman” was primarily about Simon confronting homosexuality, the allusion of gender play in “He’s My Girl” is a reference to Simon’s current on/off male lover Naim (Dehbi), who dresses up as a waitress for a local entertainment venue. In their early scenes together Simon appears to be tiring of Naim and his slender, feminine frame, coolly sending him packing the morning after a sleepover. He seems much more concerned with courting the affections of young student Raphael, who’s in a relationship with a woman but clearly struggling with his sexuality.
Simon is forced to address his living situation when his mother Bella (Magre) injures herself in a fall and moves into his home to recover. While he himself grows resentful of her presence there Naim develops a bond with Bella, managing to convince her that he is a female law student, and eventually becomes the woman’s full-time live-in nurse. Simon’s life is further complicated by the arrival of his estranged famous ex-wife Rosalie (Zylberstein) and Jewish convert son Yankele (Gasman), who come back into his life while on a visit from New York.
Simon’s existential crisis ceases to be about sexuality itself, but rather how to embark upon a lifestyle change, and the difficulties of trading in one rulebook for another. There’s a definite charm about “He’s My Girl” in the way that it doesn’t milk its characters’ faults to generate humour, more whimsically comedic as a film of little manners, rather in the vein of 1978’s La cage aux folles. It’s admirably never overwrought or gaudy with the more serious elements of the narrative, keen to focus on the intricacies of Simon’s interaction with the people in his life, hinting at the reasons why those relationships are frayed by interspersing their exchanges with sprightly quips and tense glances.
The general disappointment of the film lies is in how alarmingly ordinary it feels, even as it portrays a fanciful, occasionally interesting view of family-life. Essentially, it has a very conventional narrative, bearing overly familiar tropes of the selfishness of the bachelor; his inability to fully commit to the people around him, and a general dearth of emotional intelligence. While it maintains a flavour of camp, “He’s My Girl” can’t escape the pitfalls of compartmentalising its central character into a vain male paranoid jerk, who is only capable of realising what he wants when everybody else in his life bends over backwards to tell him. The film is by no means exceptionally offensive in the way that it telegraphs this philosophy, but nevertheless lacks real insight into the crux of Simon’s disconnection, surrounding him with people who rarely challenge the status quo.
“He’s My Girl” debilitates in impact by being too non-committal about its characters (ironic since it’s about a non-committal man in the first place), and seems continually afraid to create genuine dramatic conflict amidst this cavalcade of people who have no idea how they stand with one another. This becomes particularly clear in the weak final act, where the film admirably doesn’t make Simon’s epiphany too clear-cut, but leads us to speculate how big of an ‘epiphany’ this is in the first place. While De Caunes is introspectively thoughtful, his character’s arc is so uninteresting, and the ensemble exhibits such a conciliatory lack of self-respect that it’s difficult to care about them at all. The weakly-conceived eventualities in the script make us dubious about how things will be better for Simon; how on earth the communication issues in his life can be resolved.
‘Competency’ shouldn’t be the primary attribute for a follow-up that promised to be so colourful, but however much “He’s My Girl” does the basics right, coaxing an able performance from De Caunes, and relative newcomer Dehbi, there’s an overall slightness to the film’s themes. It’s a slow-burning flaky, ineffectual tale that finds solace in not rupturing the products of the first film, without building solidly upon it, and feels strangely like a sitcom pilot with its ephemeral storm-in-a-teacup attitude to melodrama. Confidently-played, but limply finalised, “He’s My Girl” represents a fine look at the life of a perpetually unsettled man, but one ultimately wonders whether it’s more of a shrewd capitalisation than a natural necessity.