By Stephanie Zacharek
By Robrt L. Pela
By Aaron Cutler
By Amy Nicholson
By Simon Abrams
By Chris Klimek
By Nick Schager
By Stephanie Zacharek
After seeing Foreign Student, you may want to talk yourself into the idea that it's a put-on of some sort. Intended as a weeper of the "Ah, my lost youth . . ." variety, it centers on Phillippe, a young Parisian guy who comes to a college in rural Virginia for his freshman semester. It's set in 1956, so the adult Phillippe narrates it, and though we only hear his voice, it's clear what we're supposed to picture--some elegant, continental gent sipping wine in some bistro, with a cigarette dangling from between his lips, ruminating with sweet melancholy: "Eef only eet adn't rained that day . . ." Eef only Phillippe Labro's book, on which the film was based, hadn't been optioned. With few exceptions, these bittersweet, first-mature-love stories, especially those written by men, tend to be major exercises in self-flattery. No matter how many disclaimers the author inserts acknowledging that he was a foolish young ass, the real subtext of these tales is: What a sexy, favored young prince I was! And how ruefully wise I am now! Part of what made Marguerite Duras' The Lover so cool was that, although it was about a girl, and one much younger than Phillippe, it came across like a tough-minded parody of this sodden genre. Foreign Student, however, is clearly no such put-on--it's too vigorously sincere--and if it avoids being sodden, it does so only because it's unintentionally hilarious. It has potential as a camp classic.
The film draws most of its conflict from the interracial romance between Phillippe (Marco Hofschneider) and April (Robin Givens), a beautiful black maid in the house of one of Phillippe's professors. Phillippe and April take one look at each other and start spouting portentous dialogue that indicates their instant, mystical bond. Not a clich‚ is missed in their subsequent conversations. After they make love the first time, April, having doubts about their future, says--you guessed it--We're from different worlds." No, no, Phillippe protests, the wind blows in both our faces, and the rain makes us both wet. They both talk like Harlequin Romance rejects.
The real fun in Foreign Student, however, comes from the subplots. Phillippe not only has a secondary relationship with a Southern belle (Charlotte Ross) who goes through a hilariously unmotivated breakdown, he also is befriended by a BMOC (the likable Richard Johnson) and ends up as the kicker on the football team. At the climax, director Eva Sereny and screenwriter Menno Meyjes actually try to give the picture some gridiron thrills, but even Harold Lloyd never made a football sequence this funny.
Except for the teeny Hofschneider, who starred in Europa, Europa, most of the film's cast members seem to be soap-opera alumni (it is the soap audience, maybe, at which the film is being aimed), and, true to this training ground, they do what they can to maintain their dignity while they say their ludicrous lines. Even Givens, though she's so lovely it hurts to look at her, can't keep us from giggling at times, like when she and Phillippe are standing by the road, and a car zooms past, from which we hear a whisper of harmonica. Asked who it was, she looks dreamy and soulful and says, "That's the blues comin' by." It turns out she means that it's blues greats Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson (played, respectively, by Charles S. Dutton and Hinton Battle), who have come to town to play the local juke. The musicians later befriend young Phillippe, introduce him to their music, and get him drunk. Dutton and Battle do amusing turns in the roles, and Dutton growls a cover of Wolf's "Evil" that accounts for the best few minutes of Foreign Student's length.
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