IN RECENT FILMS like Jungle Fever, Mississippi Masala and Zebrahead, the standard Romeo and Juliet storyline is used as a basis for an examination of the state of relations between races. Usually two racially different characters fall in love, then their friends and family harass them until they are forced either to separate or defy their peer group.
These films certainly serve a social purpose, drawing out issues about maintaining cultural heritage, depicting differences in the customs of different groups and putting prejudice in perspective. But you don't have to see many cross-racial Romeo and Juliet films to get the point. We already know forbidden love is tough.
That's why Café Au Lait, a cross-cultural comedy/romance from France, has to up the stakes to stay fresh. Instead of combining two ethnically separate characters and letting sparks fly, director-writer-actor Mathieu Kassovitz combines three, in hopes that the added sparks of a menage-a-trois will keep his take on racial relations up to date.
The three-way cultural exchange goes as follows: Lola (Julie Mauduech), a beautiful East Indian, is surreptitiously sleeping with both Jamal (Hubert Kounde), a rich black law student, and Felix (Kassovitz), a Jewish homeboy who sells drugs and hangs out at hip-hop nightclubs. One day she invites them both over, introduces them, and announces that she's going to have a baby--and she's not sure who's the father.
The situation is contrived to a fault, but clearly Kassovitz is not interested in realism. Rather than ditching Lola for her betrayal or insisting she choose between them, Jamal and Felix eventually decide to team up and support Lola in her pregnancy. They all move in together, and the more Lola's tummy swells, the closer they get, even to the point where the men do a little dance together in paternal exultation. The situation has a clear point: that when it comes right down to it, life is too important to let racial differences get in the way.
If Kassovitz's narrative skill or ability to draw out humorous insights were as strong as his idealism, Café Au Lait would be easy to recommend. But he falls short on several counts. Despite a terrifically energetic opening scene, in which French rap music accentuates the movement of a bicycle through Paris streets from the perspective of the bike wheel, Kassovitz's story doesn't have enough forward drive to keep us interested in the characters. We know too well that everything will come out okay, so there's nothing at stake. Likable though the characters may be, you aren't given a strong reason to root for them.
And Kassovitz's jokes are mostly in his premise. The black is rich and polite, the Jew is poor and obnoxious, and oh, isn't that a funny reversal? What other jokes Kassovitz provides are all plays on stereotypes. At one point, Jamal gets a job at a fast-food restaurant in order to get a taste of the real black experience. Felix, in turn, owns about a dozen pairs of cool tennis shoes. When Felix invites Jamal and Lola over to his house to have dinner with his Orthodox Jewish family, his sister looks at his dark-skinned companions and tells him, "I hope grandma's got batteries in her pacemaker."
The movie shows signs of life whenever the male characters get in an argument, especially when they start pointing out each other's racial contradictions. "You're just a maggot in Adidas trainers acting the New York homeboy," Jamal says correctly to Felix. Sooner or later, though, Felix tells Jamal something like "Go back to the jungle," and the resultant fist fight leaves them sitting side-by-side in a prison cell--a recurring visual punchline to their animosity.
Kassovitz, an extremely self-conscious director, is obviously influenced by Spike Lee, and at one point he invokes the name of Lee just to separate himself from Lee's hardheaded pessimism. "This isn't a Spike Lee movie!" one character says to the other during a brawl, and that's a fair assessment, because in a Spike Lee movie nobody could say the kinds of things said in this film without ending up as a blood spot on the pavement. In Spike Lee's movies, racial conflicts have serious consequences. In Café Au Lait, it's possible to work out all differences--racial and romantic alike--without anybody getting hurt. If only Kassovitz had managed to make the situations in his film more believable, and funnier, his idealism might seem not seem so weightless.
Café Au Lait is playing at The Loft (795-7777) cinema.
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