Occu-Pie, by David Bax
One of the most useful and powerful things about cinema – and about art in general, really – is that it can be a fun way of exploring topics that are not fun at all. Of course, there are also films that are not exactly a blast but explore serious subjects in otherwise compelling ways, like Paul Greengrass’ Sunday Bloody Sunday and United 93. Still, there are issues that are somber but mundane and don’t have an easily palatable outlet for public discourse. Cédric Klapisch’s My Piece of the Pie is about the devastating dissolution of the middle class, a vital topic that is nonetheless an unsexy one. In making an exuberant comedy about the issue, Klapisch has (mostly) succeeded in making an issue movie that doesn’t feel like one.
My Piece of the Pie is about a woman named France (a moniker so flagrantly and unashamedly metaphorical that it doesn’t even grate). At the film’s start, France has recently been laid off from her factory job in Dunkirk and is so distraught that she attempts suicide during her child’s birthday party. By way of help after the fact, she is offered the chance to go to Paris and work for a house cleaning agency. From there she is assigned to be the regular maid for an investment banker named Steve, cleaning his modern, minimal, enormous high rise apartment. Anyone possessing a passing familiarity with romantic comedies likely has a guess as to what comes next. That guess would probably be mostly right, too, but a few satisfying twists do emerge.
Much like Klapisch’s earlier films (he’s best known, particularly in the U.S., for When the Cat’s Away and L’Auberge Espagnole), he approaches his tale with a very calculated irreverence that is meant to be fun without ever offending. Stylistically, he never challenges the form or its aesthetic traditions but he handles them with a sort of casual exuberance that someone in marketing would likely describe as “youthful.” In general, this approach works for him, moving the film along at an exciting clip even when its tone wavers from its prevailing lightheartedness. Occasionally, though, he does himself in with it. The matter of France’s suicide attempt is translated perhaps a bit too flippantly, crossing the line into callousness.
Though Klapisch’s construction of the film is pleasant but never provocative, he does manage to upend expectations with his narrative. Both the lead characters are unexpected variations on their types. France is a bit older than the usual female star of a romantic comedy and therefore what would be “quirky” for a 25 year old instead makes her seem unstable. You are put slightly on edge in her presence, even as you find her amusing. To be clear, these traits come across as completely intentional on the filmmaker’s part and are used to wonderful effect. Meanwhile, Steve is not the corporate workaholic with a heart of gold who just needs to realign his priorities. He is truly a heartless, selfish and largely uncaring person. Unfortunately, this leads to one of the movie’s main problems. Despite Karin Viard’s hard work in the role of France, we are never intellectually able to understand why she is even a bit taken with Steve.
Christophe Beaucarne, the film’s director of photography, deserves the same praise as Viard for his efforts. Of course My Piece of the Pie is not a spectacle but Beaucarne shoots the film in scope and makes remarkable use of the wide frame. Specifically, he fills his spaces with hard angles and sharp, contrasting colors whose very immobility enhances the sense of motion when the characters walk through them. The length of the frame allows Beaucarne and Klapisch to illustrate the distance between France and Steve as well as giving them a lot of room to be almost constantly moving, hurtling through their lives.
As stated above, most viewers will be able to guess the loose outline of the plot. Yet the ending is something you likely will not see coming. Whether or not it fully works is questionable. In my opinion, it does not really, growing a bit exaggerated even for the world Klapisch has laid out. Yet the final act does make good thematically and, depending on your politics, quite satisfyingly so.
My Piece of the Pie, with its winking smugness and occasional air of overexertion, is too problematic to land among the best of the year. However, it may prove to be one of the most relevant and current movies of 2011. At its core, it’s about the 1% and the 99%. Specifically, it’s about whether or not merely putting them face to face with one another (as the Occupy Wall Street movement hoped to do) would be enough to bring them truly together. Here in the real world, it’s unlikely that the bankers and the protestors will ever realize that they love each other. But that’s what movies are for.