Funny in both official languages, French Immersion is the story of career-conscious English Canadians who flock to a small Quebec town to meet a Tremblay and learn French.
First part is easy. Everyone in the fictional village of St-Isidore-du-Coeur-de-Jésus is a Tremblay – that’s one of filmmaker Kevin Tierney’s ( Bon Cop, Bad Cop) little jokes.
English legs are pulled as well. The most notable careerist is an English federal leader who must learn to pull the wool, however impure, over Quebec’s eyes to become prime minister.
Another is a Haitian flight attendant who believes she is fluent in the language of love. Turns out she can only speak English with a French accent.
A farcical send-up of English-Canadian and Québécois customs, French Immersion is fondly reminiscent of rollicking British comedies of the sixties. The film could be titled Carry On Up the St. Lawrence.
Legendary Quebec rockeur Robert Charlebois, wearing a fright wig, plays St-Isidore’s well-seasoned (okay, corrupt) patriarch, a politician with a lifetime supply of Jean Chrétien golf balls. And the Completely Canadian party’s leader (Gavin Crawford) is a lean, mean Maritime homosexual nicknamed JFGay.
What with all the subplots, the trick here is the same any plate-spinning act faces: Keep the saucers in the air. Director Tierney is mostly successful at this task. But while there are no smashed plates, we have a couple of wobblers.
The film comes with a hokey romance, involving a sympathetic Alberta divorcee (Fred Ewanuik) and an unfailingly cheerful French instructor (Karine Vanasse), who will remind veteran CBC viewers of Louise, Chez Hélène’s obliging teenage confidante.
She’s nice ... he’s nice – a fitting Canadian romance, perhaps. But it would have been a lot more fun for the movie if one or both lovers had more sand in them.
Like if, for instance, the French instructor was one of those Vichy France dominatrix types who so often taught French in English-Canadian high schools. And the Albertan wore a Red Deer Rebels’ hockey jacket and grumbled that he had to parlez-vous the ding-dong just to get a bloody raise at the post office.
Now that would be a romance all Canada would pay to see play out.
The film could also have made more of Martha Burns, who is evidently up for fun in the role of Cathy, a rough-and-tumble undercover RCMP operative in place to protect JFGay.
Still, French Immersion succeeds for the reason most situation comedies work. The “situation” is irresistible. We’ve got a smile on our face from the first scene, when the townspeople of St-Isidore gather together to play bingo in hopes of landing an English boarder.
Winning cards in the game spell out … A.N.G.L.O.
Then there’s the sequence where our would-be Prime Minister offers heartfelt condolences to the startled Francophone parents of a teenage daughter who has departed for CEGEP (college).
The confused politician translates their explanation to mean daughter, Cegep, has been run over by a bus.
The potential exists for an endless number of daft, fish-out-of-water Canadian comedies. So let’s hope French Immersion has plenty of sequels. CBC wants to do another Don Cherry story? How about chronicling the season Mr. Kingston, Ont., played for the Trois-Rivières Lions.
Or a CODCO-flavoured comedy about Newfoundlanders taking over oil service towns in the Athabasca Tar Sands – Wha’ in Tar Nation?