Èric Lartigau’s Inversion of Historic Stereotypes in #JeSuisLà
#JeSuisLà (2019) by Éric Lartigau is a little known yet important Franco-Belgian film that explores the increasing contemporary empowerment of those formerly seen as marginal globally. #JeSuisLàdepicts a divorced and late middle-aged Basque chef and restauranteur named Stéphane Lucas, played by Alain Chabat, who is messaged on Instagram by a previously unknown South Korean woman named Soo, played by Doona Bae. The ensuing drama shows not only that the male protagonist is weak and misunderstanding of the changing world that he inhabits but challenges Western audiences to recognize how traditional power structures are in a systemic state of flux and formerly marginalized groups are fast becoming leading agents of action in the world today. Stéphane’s problematic journey ultimately allows him and his family, as well as Western viewers, to critically reflect on their place in the world and attain a greater level of personal, interpersonal, and social harmony at the conclusion of the film as a result. This renders #JeSuisLàan important work for contemporary audiences.
#JeSuisLà was a box office failure that barely grossed 10% of the movie’s € 11,300,000 production cost. One reason for its failure may be due to the discomfort French and Belgian audiences must have felt when broadly accepted and stereotypical gender, racial, socioeconomic, and cultural structures become inverted in the film. This inversion leaves the French chef-restauranteur and father of two a victim of the whims of a younger, attractive, and playful South Korean professional. The movie’s fiscal failure contrasts strongly with Lartigau’s 2015 film, La Famille Bélier, which “was France’s top-grossing local film in 2015 and [earned] $72 million worldwide” (Keslassy). In the figure of Stéphane, the male protagonist of #JeSuisLa, we find a Basque Paterfamilias that exudes commonly understood French symbols of power including Latin masculinity, a chef of traditional food in a nation and region known for its cuisine, and an independent business owner who continues the culinary legacy of his father. Stéphane is courted online by a previously unknown South Korean woman who falsely portrays herself as a recreational artist seeking meaningful connections abroad that promise more than simply friendship. Their budding virtual romance allows Stéphane to escape from his unfulfilling life as well as critically reevaluate his life and enact changes to himself as well as his inherited business during his later stage in life.
The plot develops quickly once Stéphane suddenly and rashly decides to fly to South Korea to meet his South Korean virtual converser. Soo, not expecting his arrival and never having invited him to visit her in Seoul, writes that she will meet him at the airport but never arrives to greet him and thereafter stops responding to his repeated Instagram messages and Skype calls. At first the public shares Stéphane’s sense of frustration and betrayal but the protagonist’s incomprehensibly naive decision to spend approximately two weeks awaiting Soo at the airport shows how little the fifty-something year old understands. Stéphane immediately becomes a marginal personage in a foreign country and place that is technologically and economically more advanced than his picturesque Basque hometown. It is through his postings and hashtags on Instagram that Stéphane ironically becomes the source of local and global pity, and his laughably thwarted online romance is understood as stereotypically French and quaint yet backwards and unfortunate by all but the male protagonist. Soo, a professional and economically independent citizen of a technologically advanced society and city, easily manipulated Stéphane and upon her decision to end the flirtation the protagonist is left directionless, befuddled, and suddenly aware that he is no longer the powerful agent of his actions or future. When Stéphane finally leaves the airport, he seeks out and discovers Soo but she does not happily greet him when found. Instead, Soo derides Stéphane for not allowing an imaginary romance to remain simply that before walking through Seoul with the protagonist for a short time while enlightening him about the present reality that they both occupy. At the end of their walk, Soo departs from Stéphane when she picks up her daughter from school without properly or respectfully saying goodbye to her French suitor. Stéphane and Soo’s walk together is important because it allows the viewer to recognize that although they enjoy each other’s company, Soo is clearly the more dominant figure who can control Western men as much as herself and her family.
Lartigau’s inspiration for the film was found in his 2014 journey to South Korea. While impressed with Korean history and art, Lartigau “thought he knew (South) Korea and that he would be able to make friends in the country quickly and easily. He soon found that not to be the case” (Won-Jeong). In fact it was the director’s own experience of powerlessness and cultural disorientation that allowed him to reexamine not simply South Korean culture but French culture as well, and presumably this compelled Lartigau to make this film, his first motion picture with a focus outside of France. In an interview with journalist Marc-André Lussier that was published in La Presse on July 23, 2020, Lartigau discusses his surprise at learning about Western men who become easily catfished by Asian woman that they meet online. These men often travel to Asia to meet the women only to be ignored upon their arrival or later rejected. This, together with his disorienting personal experience in South Korea, is what catapulted the director to create #JeSuisLà. In his interview with Lussier Lartigau states that he even learned of a Polish man who went on a hunger strike at a Chinese airport after being jilted by an online romance. Later Lartigau states that he was told by a Korean embassy official that extreme reactions of Westerners being abandoned by online romances in South Korea happens approximately “quatre fois par mois,” or “four times a month.” Lartigau goes on to state that in Korea and elsewhere one finds Westerners “complètement perdus, qui croyaient trouver l’âme sœur en Corée, pensant que ces femmes les accueilleraient à bras ouverts,” or “completely lost, who thought that they found their soulmates in Korea, and that these women would welcome them with open arms” (upon their arrivals). Lartigau is unfavorably impressed by the gullibility, foolishness, and general powerlessness of these disillusioned Western men and he depicts this in #JeSuisLà. Indeed Stéphane represents an old, unperceiving, and quickly fading power dynamic between Western men and Asian women. Whereas historically young and poor women from outside of the Western world may have seen relationships with older or otherwise undesirable men as an opportunity to better their lives socio-economically, this dynamic is quickly fading. Contrary to Stéphane’s sad personage, the future is embodied in Soo, a powerful and manipulative professional South Korean woman who is an independent and effective agent of change and action. Furthermore, she has a daughter and Soo’s exit in the film while guiding her daughter away from Stéphane reminds viewers that the future is theirs, and that they can and will very easily leave behind historic social norms that are no longer advantageous to them.
#JeSuisLà also reflects a growing maturity in Lartigau’s work. This film shows a total departure from his 2012 film, Les Infidèles, which explored and even glorified masculine marital infidelity and the women who allowed its perpetuation. #JeSuisLàappears to be an outgrowth of his successful 2015 empowerment and coming-of-age film La Familie Bèliere, in which an adolescent female protagonist outgrows her role as a literal and metaphorical interpreter for the teen’s deaf and sign language speaking parents. Most interestingly, however, is that #JeSuisLàreflects a major cinematographic shift in Lartigau’s work when compared to the director’s successful 2010 film, L’Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie, also known internationally as “The Big Picture.” In this movie a male lawyer protagonist murders his unfaithful wife and abandons his daughter before fleeing justice only to gain an appreciative understanding of his earlier life all too late. In L’Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie Latigau depicts a dominant male and paterfamilias protagonist who is entirely different from the old, powerless, and irrelevant male protagonist in #JeSuisLà. His 2010 film was also released four years before his first journey to South Korea in 2014, which left Lartigau with deeply lasting impressions that included an awareness of the growing impotence of traditional Western men globally. In addition to Lartigau’s maturation, it is also important to note that the decade between his 2010 and 2020 films has been characterized by public changes in perception of traditional power structures. Beginning with the Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011, the decade that began in 2010 witnessed a global community that collectively examined and debated matters regarding economy, gender, race, social justice, and even public health.
#JeSuisLà was completed in 2019, however Lartigau’s uncomfortable depiction of a powerless, aged father-figure who is fooled by a younger woman from a continent formerly colonized by European imperialists and who must be rescued by his younger sons also manifests the theme of parricide, which is increasingly found in media globally. Stéphane’s figure is arguably a synecdoche of the state of the Western male who is forced to reexamine himself in regard to his former cultural and demographic power. Discussion on how masses of people see themselves or others in shifting social contexts, however, is not a new phenomenon. Massenpsychologie, or the “behavior of unorganized masses” (van Ginneken, 392), can be traced to the late nineteenth century. Sigmund Freud’s interest in mass psychology “began on the eve of the First World War” (van Ginneken 399), hardly fifteen years after publishing Die Traumdeutung, or The Interpretation of Dreams, in 1899. In Freud’s 1899 text, the founder of modern Psychology expounded on his understanding of the Oedipus Complex and saw “parricide in the name of fraternity […] (as) the core of every revolution” (van Ginneken 403). Today’s observers may see society’s ongoing and intensely critical depiction of personages or figures representing traditional father figures, or the historic establishment, as an ongoing revolutionary movement that reflects man’s endeavor to remain in social harmony with others in a time of changing social norms. The need for Westerners to remain in social harmony with non-Western others by growing in understanding of the increasing power of women and the non-Western world is likely Lartigau’s greatest achievement in this work. As stated earlier, this major social and demographic change is likely uncomfortable for Western audiences and perhaps one of the reasons for their weak reception of the film in 2019. Other movies often compared to #JeSuisLà are Lost in Translation (2003) and The Terminal (2004). These highly successful films, however, depict Western protagonists whose adventures and romances affirm traditional and historic Western social norms and power structures. #JeSuisLà stands apart in its challenging message that Western man is losing his previously unquestionable dominance globally.
Transformation is not a new theme in Lartigau’s work, however. Film critic Paula Vázquez Prieto notes that “(t)odas las películas de Lartigau cuentan la historia de un cambio de vida para el cual los protagonistas ensayan una forma de reinvención. Se deciden a ser otros, verdaderos o impostores,” or “all of Lartigau’s films recount a story life change that requires protagonists to seek out a form of reinvention. They decide to be others, truthfully or as imposters.” Transformation is a major theme found in #JeSuisLà as well. Upon the protagonist’s return to France, Stéphane undoubtedly recognizes his humbled place in the world. Stéphane also likely finds his identity, business, and cuisine are similarly altered and enriched by his encounter with South Korea and its people. Ultimately, this deeply meaningful encounter allows the ageing protagonist and his family to better reconcile the past, present, and future within themselves, their family, and the global community. #JeSuisLà is therefore an important work because it shows the current struggle of Westerners to understand their place in a quickly changing and problematic world where previous frames of reference often cease to serve as effective tools for interpretation of the present or future.
Keslassy, Elsa. “Gaumont Clinches Deals on French-Korean Romcom ‘#iamhere.’” Variety.
January 19 2020. https://variety.com/2020/film/news/gaumont-clinches-deals-on-french-
Lussier, Marc-André. “Èric Lartigau et #JeSuisLà: voir ailleurs si l’on y est.” La Presse. July 23,
Van Ginneken, Jaap. “The Killing of the Father: The Background of Freud’s Group
Psychology.” Political Psychology 5:3 (Sep. 1984), 391-414.
Vázquez Prieto, Paula. “Eric Lartigau: “Casi todas mis películas parten de la familia, un
territorio fértil para la ficción.” La Nación. 27 de enero 2021.
Wong-Jeon, Na. “#Iamhere Director Eric Lartigau Talks Korea, its Culture and Making New
Friends.” Korea JoongAng Daily. January 18, 2021.
Dr. Alan G. Hartman is The Program Director of Modern Foreign Languages at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, NY. He holds a B.S. in Psychology and Spanish from Manhattan College, a M.A. in Hispanic Studies from Boston College, a M.A. in Italian Studies from Middlebury College, a M.A. in Theology from The University of Scranton, and a Doctor of Modern Language from Middlebury College. His areas of specialty include Modern Italian Literature, The Fascist Period, Southern Italian Literature, Italian American Literature, contemporary Latin American fiction, Movements of Social Justice, and Contemplation Studies.