Classy Film: 20 Ans d’Ecart (It Boy)
It’s easy to be pleasantly surprised by a film you expect little of. Aside from Pierre Niney, the youngest French actor to join the Comédie Française, a state-funded theatre troupe created by Louis XIV, 20 Ans d’Ecart had no name attached to it which shouts “great film”. Not that it is one, but the script and the actors do add up to an enjoyable 92 minutes of DVD watching.
On a flight back from Brazil, 19-year-old Balthazar Apfel (Niney) and 38-year-old Alice Lantins (Virginie Efira), a glossy magazine editor coming back from a photoshoot, sit next to each other. Exiting the plane after an eventful flight, Alice drops her USB stick. Balthazar’s parting words: “nice nearly dying in your company”.
Alice’s boss Vincent Kahn (Gilles Cohen) is about to leave Rebelle. Shortlisted for his job: Lise Duchêne (Amélie Glenn), the in-house, young, fun-loving editor from Quebec, and Alice. Becoming editor-in-chief has little to do with ability and everything to do with personality. “I need somebody who makes me dream. If you don’t make me dream, how can you make the readers dream?” is how Kahn justifies his favouring Duchêne to Alice.
"Making the readers dream" comes to Alice when a brief second encounter with Balthazar, to collect her lost USB stick, is mistaken by co-workers for a fling. As a picture of them apparently kissing starts making the Twitter rounds, Kahn tells Alice that her new cougar persona is finally making him dream. Alice realises that to get the editorship, she should keep up the charade of dating a younger man.
Although Efira’s character is meant to be 38, the actress was a young 35 when the film was shot, Niney 23. As a result, the 20-year age difference doesn’t seem as big as the film title would have you believe.
Either as a consequence or by mistake, the script uses the age difference as little more than a plot device, called on and discarded at will. It attempts to broach the misogyny of how society judges women dating younger men vs. men dating younger women. Both Alice’s ex and Balthazar’s dad date women in their 20s. Yet when it surfaces, at her daughter’s school, that Alice might be seeing Balthazar, the girl becomes embroiled in a fight. “You can’t go against centuries of men dating younger women” is how her ex explains the brawl.
Because the film very much deals with issues on the surface, never exploring for instance how Alice feels about herself as she dates a teenager, it walks into a number of clichés. In a break-up scene echoing one in The Rebound (2009), Alice highlights to Balthazar all the things he will want to do as a 19-year-old which she just isn’t interested in.
Fashion is another of the film’s clichés. The photographers are divas. The hairdressers are gay. The models are up for threesomes. The editrix is an ice queen who doesn’t tolerate her ideas being questioned. I’ve seen the fashion industry portrayed in this way so many times I can’t figure out any more if it’s a parody, the truth, or if fashion people have seen it and decided to embrace it.
The biggest fashion cliché of them all is Alice’s transformation from bourgeoise coincée (stuck-up bourgeoise). The bourgeoise coincée is a recurrent French cinema character, perfected by actresses like Isabelle Huppert. She comes with 5-inch stilettos, little black dresses, buns and, courtesy of Catherine Deneuve’s Belle de Jour, a wardrobe of Yves Saint Laurent.
Lo and behold, Alice starts the movie in a classic wardrobe of Dior and Saint Laurent. Her silhouette is structured, all pencil skirts and tailored shirts, more business woman than fashion editor on a street-style blog.
One of the movie’s pivotal scenes sees Alice, who’s just figured out Balthazar is her key to editorship, go to his university to pick him up. In an interview with Direct Matin, the actress explained she partnered with Isabelle Pannetier, the costume designer who has worked with Audiard and more recently on Intouchables, to figure out exactly how Alice should dress. “I wasn’t sure if she should dress super sexy or very young, with jeans and trainers. Isabelle thought we should go for sexy, which changed the character a lot”.
Alice turns up in ankle boots, a white bodycon dress with a lot of cleavage and a leather jacket. Although there is no shopping scene, no clear penny-drop moment for Alice’s wardrobe, this is the beginning of a new style, for which Pannetier was inspired by French Vogue editor-in-chief Emanuelle Alt.
By the end of the movie, Alice is still in high-heel stilettos, but she’s swapped the pencil skirts for jeans and leather jeggings. Her chambray shirts are looser, her bags less structured and she’s become a layering genius. The implication is that she isn’t trying to act young, she’s finally acting her age; in finding her sartorial style she’s also found herself. Even though this film, or the way clothes narrate character evolution, isn’t about to revolutionise cinema, French or otherwise, I really want to know what happens to her, and Balthazar, once the lights go back up.