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Film: Meet the men with four-wheel sex drive

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Film: Meet the men with four-wheel sex drive; Uneasy Riders (15) Jean-Pierre Sinapi, 90 minsJonathan Romney
The Independent on Sunday (London, England). (Apr. 1, 2001): Lifestyle: p3.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2001 Independent Print Ltd.
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According to Matt Groening, in his pre-Simpsons strip Life in Hell, Cinema's Greatest Paradox is as follows: "The French are funny. Sex is funny. Comedy is funny. Yet no French sex comedies are funny." What, then, is the chance of getting any joy out of a French disability sex comedy? Or, to up the ante further, a digital French disability sex comedy? Yet Jean-Pierre Sinapi's Nationale 7 - Uneasy Riders, as it's jovially titled for export - is not only funny, but moving, dramatically rich and bracingly bolshie.
This brisk low-budget number is set in a Catholic-run home for the disabled somewhere near Toulon in southern France. The resident troublemaker is Rene (Olivier Gourmet), a hardcore militant with a muscle-wasting illness now in a wheelchair Thoroughly angry, and regarding his fellow residents as "extraterrestrials", he spends his time baiting anyone who comes in range. We first see him putting new nurse Julie (Nadia Kaci) to the test by having her pin up the latest additions to his wall of porn; the opposite wall features Karl Marx and an upside-down Stalin.

Rene is not the only one unwilling to be placated with a gentle singalong of "Ave Maria". Jean-Louis (Gerald Thomassin) is a Clash fan with a flaming red Mohican and a motorised wheelchair - seemingly souped-up with Harley- Davidson parts - which he takes onto the highway to play tag with passing trucks. And Rabah (Said Taghmaoui) is undergoing a novel identity crisis: he is gay and Muslim with learning difficulties and an unconditional devotion to the enduringly naff French rocker Johnny Hallyday.

At the root of Rene's fury is a chronically thwarted libido, so Julie decides to fit him up with one of the prostitutes who work on the nearby Route Nationale 7. Fit him up is precisely what she does: her first job is to measure the doors of the women's caravans to see which one will take a wheelchair. The joke is not the liaison itself, but the pragmatic turn that Sinapi gives it - to get Rene laid, Julie has to fight her corner at meetings, fill in forms, then face the possibility that she might be liable to a charge of pimping.

The story looks set to take an obvious farcical turn when other residents demand roadside visits - but by that time, Sinapi has new fish to fry, and focuses on Rabah's desire to convert to Catholicism, so as to be closer to Johnny. The climactic wheelchair demo is rather awkwardly played for feelgood laughs, but the militant point is made; his rhetoric may be rough and ready, but deep down Sinapi is a tender-hearted school-of-'68 libertarian leftie making his film in the old anti-clerical, anti-institutional French tradition.

He is also a dab hand at ensemble casting. Nadia Kaci conveys a relishable mixture of sharpness, tenderness and emotional confusion, and Sinapi's close-ups get full value out of her aggrieved slow burns. Said Taghmaoui works Rabah's little-boy-lost ingenuousness without ever patronising him. And the show is briefly stolen by Julien Boisselier as the psychiatrist Julie starts dating, a smooth cerebral narcissist straight out of an Eric Rohmer moral tale.

But the star turn is Olivier Gourmet - previously seen in the Dardenne brothers' superb realist dramas Rosetta and La Promesse, and gradually establishing himself in warts-specs-and-all middle age as one of the most energetic new presences in French-language cinema. This is a dynamically physical performance, given that Gourmet's role barely allows him to move his body. Angrily propelling himself in his chair, he has the measure both of Rene's ebullience and his rebarbativeness; as one pissed-off nurse puts it, just because he's in a wheelchair doesn't mean he's not a vieux con. And you rarely see an actor enjoying himself so whole-heartedly as Gourmet does when Rene proudly shows off the results of his Viagra prescription.

The script by Sinapi and Anne-Marie Catois works even in subtitles - a line like "Cool it, Ben Hur" to a man in a wheelchair is outrageous enough to survive translation. But what really distinguishes the film is the camerawork. It was shot on ordinary domestic-quality digital camcorder for the Arte TV channel, and Sinapi turns the resulting visual mundanity to good effect. I'm still sceptical about digitally shot features - too often they look pallid, lacking visual texture. But Sinapi and photographer Jean-Paul Meurisse exploit the flat docu-drama look to their advantage. Sinapi sticks the camera where he damn well pleases - in people's faces, hovering over tables, or carried along on wheelchairs - and then edits according to where the action and the emotion are, with blithe disregard for traditional cutting grammar. Far from gratuitous, this kinetic anti- style becomes a metaphor: the film is above all about mobility, and such shooting is far more mobile than we are used to. This is cinema on wheels, rather than just on legs.

Not many films have attempted to broach the taboo against speaking of disability and sexuality in the same sentence, and Uneasy Riders does it with generous comic relish and a furious distaste for piety. It seems half-measured, however, that Sinapi could not find disabled actors for the leads, only for the supporting parts. In fact, it is one of the more severely disabled performers, Karine Leparquier, who raises an awkward question at the end when her character asks, "What about us girls?" She has a point - finally, the film can only see so far beyond Rene's charismatic machismo.

The film's one glaring infelicity is in the coda. Falling foul of his own sincerity, Sinapi has a character step forward to reveal that what we have just seen is based on a true story: the director's own sister was Julie, and there was a real Rene, to whom the film is dedicated. This rather softens the impact of a tough, bold film (a few simple title cards at the close would have done just as well). You can't help thinking that the real Rene would have given Sinapi short shrift as a bourgeois intello sentimentalist for such a lapse.

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