French Film Festival: Unity conquers all in ‘Abdel et la Comtesse’

Isabelle Doval’s heartwarming comedy “Abdel et la Comtesse" was screened at the Byrd March 30. Audience members asked questions after the screening. Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

Aaron Royce, Contributing Writer

This weekend’s French Film Festival showed films emphasizing the importance of unity despite differences. One of the most poignant — shown March 30 — was Isabelle Doval’s heartwarming comedy “Abdel et la Comtesse.”

Primarily filmed in a 17th-century castle in Normandy, the dramatic comedy shows a developing friendship between Abdul, a thief, and the recently-widowed Countess of Montberier. After Abdul escapes from a detention center, he becomes a guest at the Countess’ estate after a hunting accident. The pair’s friendship grows as the Countess searches for a male heir to her estate, and Abdul grapples with his art thievery debts catching up to him.

The film was introduced to Doval by its producers and screenwriters. Inspired by the idea of “two leading characters coming from two very different social standings,” Doval wanted them to “learn [from] each other.”

“That could’ve been a slapstick comedy, but I didn’t want to tell that story with two archetypes,” Doval said of the unlikely friendship that forms between Abdel and the Countess.

“I just wanted to tell a story about two human beings,” Doval said.

The film’s cinematography distinctly shows contrast — despite characters overcoming their differing backgrounds, Doval emphasized their sharply different settings in the film.

“It was very important when I chose sets to use the Comtesse’s place, and then Abdel’s, in these very wide, long shots,” Doval said of her setting choices. “There is so much beautiful nature around the Comtesse. And Abdul’s environment is amazing because there is no nature at all.”

Actor Mathieu Simonet took part in the post-viewing discussion; he said he toned down his portrayal of the Countess’ antagonistic nephew Gonzague on-set.

“I felt I wanted to act more colorfully, and Isabelle said, ‘Less is more,’” Simonet said. “To play with this role is fantastic, and I couldn’t make him too mean — if you’re not nice in real life, you can only go so far in your character. There are limits.”

The audience’s post-screening questions showed appreciation for the film’s themes of race, class and women’s roles. Its main conflicts of Abdul’s worldview expanding outside of his urban background, and the Countess’ nephew lustfully  pursuing her daughter to keep the estate intact — chosen by Doval specifically — are caused by aristocratic values and the barrier-ridden class system.

“In aristocracy, there are rules that don’t work with today’s society — this was the first thing that inspired me to speak about this issue,” Doval said. “The Comtesse had to understand she needed to encounter Abdel to wake up, push her zones, and understand life.”

Overall, Doval said she hopes “Abdel et la Comtesse” inspires its viewers to see the world with an open mind.

“If you open up, you’ll see all you have to know about life by encountering other people,” she said. “I love this story because you can look at everybody, and maybe learn something interesting from them. I want to show we can live together.”

For more information on the French Film Festival, visit frenchfilmfestival.us.

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