French director Mikael Buch’s first offering Let My People Go is a lighthearted and occasionally thoughtful attempt to tease out the appeal of the ties that bind a gay and Jewish identity together. Buch’s stand-in protagonist, Ruben, is a French Jew living in bliss in Finland, land of Tom. The reference to the book of Exodus and the exilic condition in the title is about as biblical as the movie gets; but its dual meaning illuminates the pull of these two communities. Buch wants to let his people go – to leave behind the specificity and weight of an ethnic identity – but also wants their recognition of his freedom to be a gay man – to have them grant him freedom, too. This tension is played for comedy rather than pathos, which is for the better given how slight the drama ultimately is. The cartoonish situations, broad characterizations and color-saturated Pierre-et-Gilles aesthetic amplify each narrative stroke, resulting in a satisfying if not wholly filling bonbon of a film.
We open in paradise. Ruben (Nicolas Maury, who’s giving off a Paul Reubens vibe) is a postman in the Finnish countryside, delivering packages in a postcard town and at night retreating to a cabin in the woods with his Nordic lover Teemu (Jarkko Niemi). The Parisian nebbish has smartly fled his stifling family existence in France for the more appealing prospects of a degree in Comparative Sauna Cultures from a robust social-democratic state and the affections of a blond lunk. The idyll cannot last, of course. Three days before Passover, Ruben delivers a package containing a large amount of Euros to a local widower who refuses to accept it, instead collapsing dead on his front lawn. What is Ruben to do? He brings the cash home, but Teemu accuses him of being a thief. Their quarrel explodes, and Ruben is chased from the garden, back to the suffocating family scenes he thought he had left behind in Paris.
His family is as he had left it. Matriarch Rachel (Carmen Maura, an Almodóvar muse) fusses and worries over him, while irritated, handsome Samuel (Clémont Sibony), unhappily married Irène (Amira Casar) and lothario father Nathan (Jean-François Stévenin) all spin in place. Nathan insists Ruben meet and play tennis with his mistress.
The close quarters Ruben finds himself in press upon his sexuality, making it clear why he would have fled for the frozen north in the first place. Dancing one night at the Out of Egypt nightclub (get it?), Ruben has a run-in with a close family friend, a prominent lawyer and member of the Jewish community, Maurice (a delightfully haywire Jean-Luc Bideau). Maurice’s pursuit of Ruben makes manifest the incestuous anxieties of a close-knit ethnic community, Maurice providing the former and Ruben portraying the latter. He pines for the freedom from the weight of community that his life in Finland had, and for the uncomplicated love of Teemu.
Periodically, the Parisian scenes will cut back to the Finnish paramour’s life, where it’s clear that his love for Ruben endures. Proving true the adage that opposites attract, Teemu is virtuous and comfortable in his own skin. He is devoted to Ruben – he still keeps kosher. When a friendly forest ranger sparks a fire in the bedroom with Teemu, this only spurs him to reconcile with his lost French love, a desire of which his glamorous mother Helka (Outi Maenpaa) enthusiastically approves.
As the writer/director’s stand-in, Ruben’s appeal and the righteousness of his point of view are taken for granted, which is a comedic device fraught with risks. Especially because the stakes are so low, the commiserating about his not-that-dire situation doesn’t always inspire sympathy. Ultimately, it’s Teemu’s charm that keeps the audience rooting for the couple to reunite – we just want our erstwhile hero to keep this good man happy.
Buch has also spoken about the need to move away from his family in order to live openly as a gay man – a somewhat typical requirement, too, for the members of a younger generation of an ethnic community embarking on an assimilative mission. But if one identity can pull you away from your first one, that first identity should have an equally strong pull on the second. Ruben’s attempt to live out his fantasies of an identity freed from the shackles of ethnic or even sexual particularism – he is a governmental employee in a monogamous relationship – is inevitably dashed. The lesson here is that true freedom must come from embracing the weight of your inheritance.
That said, there must be something to lighten the load, too. The idea of escape – Exodus – can take its shape in the flight to a country, like Finland, say, or it can find expression in the world of images: in film. Cinema has long been celebrated as an escape hatch for the homosexual community to project their desires into, and a place where those desires can fulfill themselves unchecked by the tedium of daily family life. And it’s not a coincidence that the very image of gay masculine fantasy comes from an artist named Tom of Finland. That’s a pseudonym – his Finnish name was Touko, but it may as well have been Teemu.
So we get to watch this director’s imaginative flight from his messy origins to a world where he’s the love-object of an Aryan icon of androeroticism and a successful film director, in the lineage of a cinematic family he attempts to create with his significant parental casting choices (“Imagine if Truffaut and Almodóvar had a baby”). These are not fatal flaws; luckily for Buch, he does have a deft hand with pacing and mise en scène that allows this indulgent confection to share its pleasures. He has enough sense to steer clear of the tired coming-out tale, and his viewpoint into both the French-Jewish and gay Jewish worlds give the film a sense of originality. But if you are looking for a serious, insightful or transcendent look at a modern male romantic relationship, take flight.
The Upside: A farce about being thrice blessed (Jewish, French and gay) can lead to uncommon comedic send ups.
The Downside: Habitually playing for laughs, and a frantic pace that keeps us from rooting for our hero.
On the Side: You don’t have to be Jewish, French or gay to enjoy universal themes like love and acceptance.