French whimsy is a delicate thing, and seldom more so than in Augustin, the 61-minute tale of an aspiring Parisian actor. The title character, played by writer/director Anne Fontaine’s brother, Jean-Chretien Sibertin-Blanc, works part-time in an insurance company, but has also done the occasional TV commercial and walk-on part. When we meet him, he’s earnestly selling himself to a casting agent, explaining that he wants to appear in action and war films, and is uninterested in “kooky parts.”
The ectomorphic Sibertin-Blanc makes such Euro-nerds as Roberto Benigni, Michel Blanc, and Nanni Moretti look Schwarzeneggerian by comparison, so the stuttering, unfocused Augustin Dos Santos’ ambitions seem unlikely. Yet Augustin is granted a test with French star Thierry Lhermitte (playing himself) and the possibility of a role in Lhermitte’s next film, as a man who takes a job as a room-service waiter so he can keep track of his wife’s infidelities.
Rather than prepare himself by exploring the emotional turmoil of his character, Augustin decides to learn about room service. Eventually finding a luxury hotel that will let him pose as an employee, Augustin takes breakfast to an American guest, who tips him generously despite his intrusive nattering about the weather. Then he meets a Chinese-born maid, Caroline (Stephanie Zhang), who demonstrates how to clean a room; smitten, Augustin is thrilled by the encounter, even though Caroline declines his romantic offer that they ride part-way home together on the Métro. Satisfied that he’s mastered the room-service routine, Augustin is prepared to take the partprovided, of course, that it doesn’t conflict with his schedule.
That’s about the extent of Augustin, although there is a final gag I won’t reveal. As with Michel Blanc’s recent show-biz farce, Gross Fatigue, it probably helps to be French: The exchange with the mystified Lhermitte would likely be funnier to those who live in a country where Lhermitte is well-known, and the bemusement of those
who encounter Augustin no doubt loses some of its zest when rendered in subtitles.
Bemusement would seem to be Fontaine’s aim. Augustin uses mostly amateur actorsZhang, for example, is actually a hotel chambermaidand even the professionals weren’t given a peek at each others’ dialogue before the camera started rolling. Like her protagonist, the director values immersion in mundane details; she had Sibertin-Blanc work for three months at an insurance company, which she then used as a location.
Alas, Fontaine has conjured the commonplace all too well. Though it offers a few giddy moments, the film is frequently as unremarkable as the life of a real chambermaid or insurance-company employee. Even those who are comfortable laughing at Augustin’s stuttering may tire of the solemnly ridiculous little man in less than an hour; Augustin puts its entire audience in the position of the American hotel guest, waiting for its hero to finally pipe down, take his tip, and leave.
Since Augustin is so short, it’s being shown with Omnibus, an Oscar-winning (in 1992) eight-minute one-liner about a hapless small-town commuter held captive by one of the French National Railways, one of the country’s many notorious bureaucracies. This film is slight too, but at least its punch line is more precisely located than Augustin’s.CP