Director: Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon
Screenplay: Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon
Producers: Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Christie Molia, Charles Gilbert
Starring: Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Emmanuelle Riva, Pierre Richard
Year: 2016
Country: France/Belgium
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 83 mins

For huge fans of silent comedy like myself, the films of husband and wife team Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon have proved to be a fascinating and unique discovery. Often compared to iconic comedy legends Jacques Tati, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, Abel and Gordon have channelled these influences and a love of French Burlesque into the creation of a clutch of oddball films that have amused and baffled audiences in equal measures. I must admit that upon first seeing their 2008 black comedy Rumba I was torn between enjoyment and bewilderment. The 2011 follow-up The Fairy, if anything, was even more bizarre but the cumulative power of the films helped me begin to make sense of the world Abel and Gordon had created. It was telling that, having been left confused by Rumba, I still eagerly and very quickly sought out The Fairy. It is also instructive to note that I was initially attracted to both films on the basis of the brightly coloured cover art alone. This vivid comic-book-to-life style is very much a trademark of the duo’s and the deliberate artifice of their world is instantly evocative of the homemade charm of early Mighty Boosh or the goofball slapstick of 90s children’s TV series ZZZap!, in which a comic book literally came to life.

Although the stage-like settings and artificial flavourings of their previous work helped distinguish Abel and Gordon as playful visionaries, their latest film Lost in Paris replaces the fake backdrops with real Parisian settings, only occasionally presenting the audience with their boldly ersatz creations. Though it may have been a legitimate concern that this switch would somehow reduce the couple’s charm, it instead enhances it by making the film seem more cinematic without completely abandoning their trademark touches. More importantly, the reduction of the staginess allows greater focus on the performers themselves, whose superb clowning was always the lynchpin of their films anyway. The kind of comedy Abel and Gordon favour is often the sort to inspire admiration over hilarity. This is no insult, as Lost in Paris is very funny as well but in a way that inspires an intake of breath or spontaneous applause at its invention and audacity. They are able to switch mood from quaint and sweet to black and subversive without audiences seeing the join. There is also a refreshing determination to allow a scene to play out in its own time, rather than pack it full of gags and fill every crack with tedious look-at-me improvisation for fear of losing an audience’s attention. The greatest physical comedians have impeccable control over their bodies and Abel and Gordon are accomplished dancers, something which informs their comedy but also allows them to punctuate their films with alluringly unusual dance routines, evoking the spirit of the classic Hollywood musical but with a laudable modesty that makes the fluidity of their movements even more spellbinding.

While Abel and Gordon’s previous films were so loose in the plotting that they often felt like they were made up as they went along, Lost in Paris has a tighter structure based around three central characters: Fiona, Dom (the couple always name their main characters after themselves) and Martha (played by the wonderful Emmanuelle Riva, the star of the classic Hiroshima Mon Amour and Michael Haneke’s Amour). Martha is an elderly woman living in Paris who calls her niece Fiona for assistance when she is threatened with being put in a home. Fiona arrives in Paris to find Martha has disappeared and, in the process of searching for her, manages to lose her passport, money and all of her possessions. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she finds herself also becoming an object of fascination for oddball homeless man Dom, who latches onto her in her quest to find her aunt. The focus switches between this central trio through the use of captions bearing their names, before the three are drawn together for a finale that pays tribute to Harold Lloyd and injects the best elements of Abel and Gordon’s stylised worlds into the very real Paris we’ve become used to over the runtime.

While it is certainly a more structured work, Lost in Paris’s thin plot is still just a thread on which Abel and Gordon can hang their comedy set pieces. These include a mesmerising slow dance routine in a restaurant, a hysterically funny ad-libbed eulogy, a whimsically magical foot-dance performed by two elderly dancers who remain seated for the duration and a head-spinning teeter atop the Eiffel Tower. As is usually the case in episodic films, a couple of moments don’t quite land. Fiona getting her nose trapped in a lift door is a little bit too silly even for this semi-reality while a promising split-screen sex scene abandons its premise too early for a simple, wildly over-the-top depiction of intercourse in a tent seen entirely from the outside. But these missteps are mere blips and are easily forgiven in the knowledge that occasional overreaching is an inevitability for those with the bravery to try something really different.

Ultimately, Lost in Paris is likely to be a very divisive film because of its boldness. Abel and Gordon are an acquired taste in the truest sense. Their style seems so alien to many modern audiences and it takes a while to settle into… three films in my case! But any misgivings are likely to be trumped by fascination for adventurous film fans and persistence pays off. I’ll certainly be going back to watch Rumba, The Fairy and their first film L’iceberg again and am expecting to enjoy them more the second time round armed with the knowledge of what to expect (at least to an extent!). That said, I do believe that Abel and Gordon are improving as their confidence grows and Lost in Paris is certainly their finest creation to date. I can’t wait to see where they go next.

Lost in Paris is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Arrow Academy on 4 December 2017. Special features are as follows:
Abel & Gordon and the Quest for Burlesque – a video essay by Variety film critic Peter Debruge
– Two short films by Abel and Gordon – Walking on the Wild Side and The Tent
– Theatrical trailer
– Reversible sleeve featuring two artworks

Lost in Paris
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