Kristin Scott Thomas stars alongside Jean-Pierre Bacri in director Pascal Bonitzer’s Looking for Hortense (2012), a diminutive and largely atonal French comedy of manners that sets about weaving issues of immigration and nationality into its story of a beleaguered family, only to find itself entirely wanting in the narrative department. Scott Thomas plays Iva, a frustrated stage director trying to inject two actors with a sense of passion before her latest play enters dress rehearsals. She also fails to infuse passion into a dormant relationship with her partner, Damien (Bacri), and their son, Noé (Marin Orcand Tourres).
The film, scripted by Bonitzer and Agnes de Sacy, is essentially a two-tiered character study that gives little shape to either side. Iva instructs Damien to reach out to his preoccupied, inconsistent father, a senior member of the French Council of State, and ask for help in preventing the deportation of Zorica (Isabelle Carré), a young Serbian woman whose chance encounter with Damien in a book store heralds an intimate kinship. Iva’s eye also begins to wander when the advances of her handsome leading man offer respite from a seemingly unresponsive family life. Damien begins to question whether the motivation is for the fortification of his relationship with Iva or the impetus for a new, reciprocal romance with Zorica.
After a relatively strong opening half that establishes the fractured connection felt by Iva and Damien, as well as the ongoing alienation felt by Noé – on the cusp of adolescence and starting to act out, the somewhat stable foundations of Looking for Hortense quickly fade away, exposing a weak structure built on minimal ideas. Once Iva’s infidelity is exposed, Scott Thomas exits the film for large portions of time, leaving the focus solely on Damien’s strangely uninteresting and, not to mention, sometimes completely nonsensical quest for paternal declaration and clarification as to whom his devotion should be attributed to. Noé, too, is quickly shunted off, which is unfortunate as the rather unrefined relationship he has with his parents and the increasing distancing effects this has is a once sympathetic subplot that deserves focal treatment.
Peppered by typically frank dialogue, Bonitzer’s Looking for Hortense ultimately sets itself out to achieve far more than it eventually does, powered by an attempt to paint a portrait of contemporary French bourgeois lifestyles and the unsteady political issues regarding migration. This is an attempt that largely fails by simply not spending enough time on each leading character; Iva is unreservedly stiff (no matter how much zeal Scott Thomas infuses her with) and Zorica is a near-totally ineffectual presence, leaving only a highly watchable Bacri to carry the slapdash storyline from point A to a semblance of a resolution. This he does, but, in doing so, lends undeserving gravitas to an inconsequential multi-strand film with a serious identity crisis.