Jesse Peretz’s “The Chateau” is visually as dingy as the titular edifice–a run-down mansion in southern France–but it boasts enough funny dialogue and sharp characterizations to be mildly amusing nonetheless. The picture is a largely improvised piece shot on HDV, and at times it looks so shabby that it could pass for a Dogma effort; but at least it calls to mind one of the better examples of that pretentious Danish no-frills movement–“Italian for Beginners,” for instance.
The premise is certainly simple enough. Two totally dissimilar American brothers–sweet, dim Graham (Paul Rudd) and his adopted African-American sibling Alan (Romany Malco), a hip web entrepreneur who’s now calling himself Rex, arrive in Languedoc to check out the estate they’ve inherited from a recently-deceased great-uncle. Their arrival discomfits the leftover staff–suave butler Jean (Didier Flamand), crusty groundsman Pierre (Philippe Mahon), chubby cook Sabine (Maria Verdi) and winsome maid Isabelle (Sylvie Testud)–but Graham soothes things in his fractured French by assuring them all they’ll be staying on, whatever the disposition of the property. Over the next few days both guys show an interest, each in his own way, in Isabelle, who also has a fatherless toddler named Sebastian. But that works out for neither, and when it becomes clear that the chateau is deeply in debt, their attempts to arrange its sale cause the servants to react in increasingly disruptive ways.
Much of the humor that arises from this situation are of the cross-cultural variety. Graham’s persistently clumsy efforts to communicate in French are the source of a great deal of the mirth early on (his pronunciation of “Count” is especially unfortunate), and the baffled reaction of the locals to the Americans’ ways (and vice versa) provides considerable amusement. As the plot kicks in, however, the comic invention flags–even a turn by the talented Donal Logue as a philistine rock star who jumps at the chance to buy the place falls rather flat–and the revelations toward the close are, curiously enough, both predictable and muddled. The denouement, moreover, doesn’t provide the sense of closure one would ideally like.
Still, there’s some good fun in “The Chateau.” Rudd, in particular, draws a rich portrait of the likable schlub Graham. Rumpled and distinctly uncool, he stands in stark contrast to the would-be hipster played by Malco, who energizes things with his aggressive delivery but doesn’t garner equal laughs. Testud is agreeably fragile as Isabelle, and Flamand radiates an appropriate air of dignity as the butler who’s more than meets the eye. Mahon and Verdi could have used a bit more restraint.
Unfortunately, on the technical side the picture is disappointingly bland, with the color washed out and many scenes, shot by natural light, looking dark, gritty and indistinct. Thus far it would appear that the sole virtue of digital video is economy for the makers. Viewers, on the other hand, are paying the price in increased eyestrain and a diminishment of purely aesthetic pleasure.