05 February 2011

Quartier lointain (遥かな町へ, 2010)

The French film poster
When we look back at the stories of our lives, it is often tempting to imagine how our lives would be different if only we could turn back the hands of time and alter the bad choices we unwittingly made. The middle-aged comic author Thomas Verniaz (Pascal Greggory) is given just such a chance when a surreal twist of fate intervenes and transports him back to his childhood in the weeks leading up to the fateful day when his father disappeared.

Quartier lointain (released in Germany as Vertraute Fremde, 2010), is the German-Belgian director Sam Garbarski’s adapation of Jiro Taniguchi’s 1998 graphic novel Distant Neighbourhood (遥かな町へ/ Haruka na Machi e). Taniguchi’s post-war tale of a man returning to his pivotal adolescent years transfers well to the French setting chosen by Garbarski. There are many parallels between Japan and France in terms of how the trauma of the second World War affected both individuals and families well into the post-war period.
The original graphic novel by Taniguchi
A similar street scene in the Sam Garbarski adaptation

Apart from the change in location, the plot is fairly faithful to the original story. Verniaz seems to be experiencing a mild depression that has led to strain in his family and professional life. When he boards the train back to Paris after a trip to a comic book fair, he falls asleep and awakes to discover that he has boarded the wrong train. He disembarks in order to try change to a Paris-bound train and discovers that fate has brought him back to his home town in the Rhône-Alpes – a place he has avoided since his mother’s funeral more than twenty years earlier.

Thomas takes a trip through memory lane by walking through the town, past the home he used to live in above his father’s tailor shop. Like many small towns, the small shops in the center of town have suffered in the modern age and his father’s old shop is now an out-of-business electronics store. He eventually ends up at the town cemetery where he visits his mother’s grave and her Germanic maiden name tells us she may not have been a local and gives us a clue towards solving the puzzle of her husband’s disappearance. While staring at his mother’s grave, a butterfly appears (a symbol of transformation from the original text) and then Thomas falls asleep.

When he awakes, Thomas finds himself back in his 14 year old body in 1967. He is thus given the unique opportunity of getting to know his parents better, and can spy on his father to try to figure out why he left the family. The film’s best moments are the awkward situations that result from Thomas having the knowledge of a middle aged man and trying to fit back into his life as an adolescent boy. For example, he is now mature enough to flirt with Sylvie Dumontel, the beautiful girl he had only ever admired from afar, but in his head he is still a married man with two young daughters.

The set and costume design for Quartier lointain is impeccably done. From the portrait of Charles de Gaulle in the school to Thomas’s parents’ carefully tailored clothes, great care was taken to give the film an authentic late 1960s look. There are minor differences in plot, some of which were necessary because of the change in location and others that seemed rather random. The main protagonist is transported back to 1967 instead of 1963. This may be due to the minor difference in age between Pascal Greggory, who plays the adult Thomas, and Jiro Taniguchi – it may, however, have only have been nostalgia on the part of the filmmakers who could use a poster advertising Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour on the cinema instead of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia as in the original.

The scriptwriters would have been better served by keeping more closely to Taniguchi’s original story because some of the random changes (such as the confusion regarding the father’s birthday and leaving the ending too open) actually detracted from the emotional impact of the film. The performances, particularly by Léo Legrand as the young Thomas and Alexandra Maria Lara as his mother, are all superb – the film was really only let down by the script which added inane dialogue in some places and left too much out in other places.

Despite the film’s flaws, it is still enjoyable to watch for the performances and the lovely location filming in Nantua in the mountainous Ain department of the Rhône-Alpes. The brilliant soundtrack by electronic pop band Air (Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel) is at times funky and at other times haunting. Fans should keep their eyes open for a brief cameo by Jiro Taniguchi during the older Thomas’s train journey back to Paris.
The German film poster

This Belgian-French-German-Luxembourg co-production is currently only available on DVD in French (to be released in France in May) and German (this DVD has the original French soundtrack with German subtitles or an optional German dub) but I have found an English subtitled trailer so perhaps it will be available on DVD in English eventually. I will post an update if I hear of an English or Japanese release.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011
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