written and directed by Dominique Deruddere with Josse De Pauw, Eva van der Gucht, Thekla Reuten, and Victor L� opens July 20 at Harvard Exit
THE DISEASE WE call fame is shown to be universal, irresistible, and insidious in this Oscar-nominated Belgian comedy, which bears a considerably gentler, more genial touch than other media satires we've seen recently at the box office. Unlike Series 7: The Contenders or 15 Minutes, where violence and publicity are inseparable, Famous makes its weapon the disposable bubblegum pop song of a minor Benelux market. Its villain—if he can be called such—is a harmless Walter Mitty type named Jean who only dreams of Top-40 stardom for his 17-year-old daughter, Marva. How does such a loving parent come to be the bad guy, the object of national TV notoriety? It requires an atrociously memorable ditty called "Lucky Manuelo," penned by none other than the doting stage parent himself in the hopes of providing his girl with a big break.
She needs it. Capable of singing like an angel when not under the pressure of humiliating local talent show competitions, Rubenesque Marva (Eva van der Gucht) inspires immediate pity on stage. You can see why Jean (Josse De Pauw) and his no-nonsense wife worry for her; Belgian stardom, as embodied by slim, sexy, and thoroughly artificial Debbie (Thekla Reuten), is a tough, unforgiving racket. The unfairness of it drives Jean to desperate measures after he loses his factory job. Happening upon Debbie, he impulsively kidnaps her, then forces her unctuous manager (smirking, lip-smacking Victor L�to consider the demo song he's written for Marva. Abetted by his dim-witted factory colleague, Willy, Jean stands in the long cinematic tradition of incompetent criminals. Together, their bungling makes for laughs in a setting like Little Voice's no- talent, class-conscious milieu; it's the continental equivalent to Brassed Off or The Full Monty, where stage lights shine promisingly above the gloom of a doomed smokestack economy.
Familiar stuff—although Famous mixes in just enough reality-TV material to give the story some fresh spin. Well-meaning Jean's completely unaware of how Debbie's cunning manager is using him to garner publicity for clients old and new. (We're told a whopping Belgian audience of three million is watching Marva's climactic, coerced television debut. Talk about pressure—that's like all of, say, Iowa is watching.) The resulting media spectacle hasn't much bite or surprise to it, but the moral—"You've got to believe in yourself," Marva sings—goes down easily, if forgettably, enough.
MAN FROM FLANDERS
HERE FOR SIFF, Dominique Deruddere introduced a screening of Everybody's Famous!, then bravely sat down to view it with an appreciative Seattle audience. "Everywhere in the world, they seem to laugh at the same spots or be silent at the same spots," he says, having previously shown the movie at several different international festivals.
How is Famous particularly Belgian? "There's a very unhealthy aspiration in Belgium to become famous, and part of it is because it is possible," he explains. "In our country, it's so small that you get the impression that everybody already is famous! The quest for fame has less to do with the social environment—the unemployment rates—and more to do with the cynicism of television. The step to television is getting lower and lower" (i.e., there's a lower barrier to entry).
"It's a kind of a lottery," Deruddere continues, "but you have more chance to become a star." Moreover, he adds, powerful Belgian media companies are vertically integrated, with TV stations and fan magazines working together to mint new celebrities. "Because it's such a small country, they can control it completely. If they want to make a star, it's very easy to do." In the old-fashioned sense of the term, he concludes, "It is a Hollywood system."