Jerome Bonnell: Talent in Evidence

in 39th Chicago International Film Festival

by John Harkness

In an era when 20-something filmmakers seem devoted to shooting quick and dirty movies on digital video, Jerome Bonnell’s debut feature shows an almost indecently assured technique. While it would be easy to mock him as a reactionary talent, as his film fits so snugly into the “young romance” traditions of French cinema – one can’t watch “Olga’s Chignon” without thinking of masters like Rohmer and Téchiné – it would also be foolish to deny the talent in evidence in this film.

In a small town in northern France, Julien (Hubert Benhamdine) has stopped playing the piano after the death of his mother. His father and sister mope about, and his best friend, Alice (Nathalie Boutefou), is having boyfriend troubles while rehearsing a tapdance number for a local show.

One day, Julien sees Olga (Delphine Rollin), who works in a bookstore. He is immediately and deeply infatuated.

What Bonnell manages is a deft interweaving of various narrative strands – Julien’s infatuation, his family’s dealing with life without mom, the social ecology of the small town where they live – without ever feeling the need to point at things. It’s a subtle, almost incremental style of filmmaking that builds a sense of place slowly, detail by detail, so that by the end of the film we feel that we don’t simply know the film’s protagonist, but the world he inhabits in often painfully intimate detail.

It’s a bit difficult to judge the film’s visual style. At Chicago, we’d seen a number of poorly shot first features, handheld digital video, blown up to muddy looking 35mm. “Olga’s Chignon” was the first film we saw that actually looked like a film, with clean compositions, fluid camera movement and well-lit locations. We may have overvalued it somewhat, but I suspect not.

Bonnell has a genuine feeling for his locations, and a very delicate touch with his actors that imbues their characters with emotional reality, which is particularly impressive with Hubert Benhamdine, whose first film this is.

In an interview with The Guardian, Bonnell claimed that he’d never won a prize in his life. We’ve made a liar of him.