Director: Pascal Elbé (France). Year of Release: 2021
Darkness. A woman’s voice calls out, asking her partner to speak dirty to her. Silence. She calls “say the words that turn me on”. More silence. She strops off in a huff. Finally, a man’s voice: “while you’re up, can you get me a glass of water?”
Antoine is losing his hearing, though he hasn’t realised it yet. Every day, his downstairs neighbour Claire comes up to complain about the loudness of his alarm. Elsewhere, his conversations are full of non-sequiturs after he’s misheard what the other person was saying. In the history lessons that he gives, he ploughs on without taking heed of the questions or comments from the kids in his class.
On one level, this is the joke. Antoine is the stereotypical man who doesn’t listen to what anyone else says, and just carries on as if what he says is the only thing that matters. We all know people like that, don’t we? And we all know that they’re complete dicks, right? And this is a problem with this film. Because director and writer Pascal Elbé doesn’t want Antoine (played by Pascal Elbé) to be too much of a dick.
This is clearly seen when for some reason Antoine ends up on a date with Claire. Claire has been smoking dope and fallen asleep, leaving her daughter Violette alone and with nothing to eat. Antoine passes by, goes into their flat and cooks Violette some pasta. He leaves without Claire noticing that he’s there. Violette, by the way, is traumatised by her father’s death and has not been able to utter a word since (dumb girl and deaf man. Can we make something of this? A: not really).
This is just disturbing on so many levels. Notwithstanding the “you did what?” aspect to Claire’s behaviour, she is creeped out by the fact that a man with whom she’s only had harsh words was alone in her flat with her distressed young daughter. Now, I know that this is a romantic comedy, so the obvious next step is for Claire to overr
eact then apologise to Antoine and ask him out for a meal. In the real world, you think that she might be a little more wary.
Anyway, back to the hot date. Antoine spends most of the evening as he always does, not hearing what Claire is saying but being too vain to admit that he has a hearing problem. By now he actually does has a high-tech hearing aid, but he doesn’t want her to know, so he can’t explain why the hearing aid keeps cutting out when she tries to have bland chit-chat. But it seems to be working fine when the chit-chat is followed by an intimate chat which takes them into bed.
This is just all too forced. As long as you just treat the film as a comedy, you don’t worry too much about the plot being not so believable. As soon as you realise that the director doesn’t want us to laugh to much at this arrogant, pathetic guy, you get more sensitive to things which just don’t make sense. Like how Antoine’s hearing aid doesn’t work properly when he’s in a noisy environment, but that it’s conveniently ok that he’s in a noisy room whenever the plot requires.
While we’re here: is it worth saying how bad a teacher Antoine is? Not just the ignoring his pupils, not just the droning on, the few times we see him in the classroom he is deeply uninspiring. And yet, there is a scene when the film wants us to believe that he has inspired the group of working class kids for whom he obviously has no affinity. In one brief moment, we see them listening in awe to what they’ve said. And suddenly loving him for this act of inspiration. I really don’t think so.
Do you want to know how low Schmetterlinge im Ohr is prepared to sink? It has a scene in which Antoine is talking about a fellow worker, and because his hearing aid is not in, he doesn’t realise that she has returned and is standing behind him. This is the sort of “joke” that any self-respecting sitcom (and many which have little self-respect) would reject. It’s not that such a scene is necessarily unfunny … actually thinking about it, it is exactly that.
Tonight’s showing was an open-air pre-screening for a film that opens in German cinemas tomorrow. Before it started, Elbé was wheeled on, and, like his character, seemed to be modestly charming (which is part of the problem. All Antoine’s behaviour points him to being an arrogant, self-entitled narcissist. The film’s problem is trying to make him sympathetic rather than enjoying his despair).
Anyway, Elbé came up before the film and made a thankfully short speech in which he said he hoped we’d enjoy the film, and especially hoped we’d laugh – in fact, he knew we’d laugh. I’m really sorry Pascal, as you seem like a nice bloke, but it’s hard to laugh at something that’s so shallow and basically unfunny. Schmetterlinge um Ohr leaves no cliché unturned. It tries hard, but ultimately lacks the substance to be able to deliver.