A French comedy about hearing loss winds up losing its own footing
Hollywood’s habit of remaking French films not long after their original release has led many of us to second-guess the motives behind the original’s production. Are they being made sincerely or out of anticipation of making money after selling the remake rights? Hear Me Out is a movie that entertains during its running time but becomes less satisfying the more you think about it. Even more depressing is the realization that it could have easily been transplanted to an American setting with only minor changes. You can even play a game-deciding who should play who in an American remake:
“Well, Steve Carrell or Will Ferrell would be ideal in the lead but let’s be realistic, they’ll try to get Jason Sudeikis or Bill Hader even if they are too young for the part.”
“Zack Galifianakis could play his co-worker and best friend, but Jason Alexander could use the work.”
“The female lead looks like Kristin Wiig, so it’s got to be her. Or Amy Poehler. Is Amy Schumer available?”
“Lauren Graham as her best friend and Peter Davidson as her best friend’s obnoxious boyfriend. He wouldn’t have to stretch much.”
“Leslie Jones as his fellow teacher. Only her will do.”
Hear Me Out (original French title: On est fait pour s’entendre) was written and directed by leading man Pascal Elbé, based upon his own experiences with early-onset hearing loss. No doubt he had to go through many embarrassing situations that he was able to laugh at in hindsight, but it’s pretty unlikely that they played out in the sitcom style of the movie. Elbé plays Antoine, a divorced Paris history teacher who refuses to admit that he is already experiencing hearing loss in his early fifties. In the opening scene, his latest lover angrily kicks him out of bed over a verbal misunderstanding. She then breaks up with him altogether over his inability to admit something is wrong with him.
He goes through similar problems at work, not just being unable to hear his students but to follow board meetings as well. Then his downstairs neighbor Claire (Sandrine Kiberlain) confronts him over his alarm clock blaring in the morning. She says that it’s upsetting her daughter, who hasn’t spoken since the death of her father. No points for predicting that Antoine and Claire will eventually fall in love or if her daughter will eventually speak again, and who she’ll speak to first.
The best parts of Hear Me Out are those with a ring of truth, no pun intended. Anyone who has experienced hearing loss or is close to someone who has can relate to the scenes of mutual misunderstanding leading to embarrassment and hurt feelings. The scenes of Antoine and his sister trying to reason with their dementia-afflicted mother also manage to be both funny and sensitively handled. They also play an important role in getting Antoine to finally acknowledge both his hearing loss and how his refusal to do so has damaged his relationships with others.
Unfortunately, the cliches and contrivances undermine the truthful moments. It’s a shame because Antoine himself is an interesting character, and as played by Elbé seems very real and relatable indeed. He should be surrounded by other real people, but Elbé has instead chosen to surround him with caricatures. We never get to know his students or their frustrations very well, and they mostly come off as just petulant. This is despite the fact that in the classroom scenes, a solid point is made about the difference between a physical inability to listen and a psychological refusal to do so.
Claire is a particularly frustrating case. She starts out as too shrill to be likeable, and even when she softens up remains as obstinate as Antoine. Although Kiberlain’s performance is partly at fault, it’s ultimately more the fault of the script. The embarrassing circumstances of her husband’s death becomes the basis for a sick joke that only trivializes her grief. Then when her romance with Antoine seems to be in jeopardy, it’s less because of his hearing aids conking out than her own lack of empathy for his condition. This is especially unfortunate because we should be emotionally invested in a happy outcome for both characters, not just Antoine.
Elbé’s intentions can be inferred from the double meaning in the original French title. On est fait pour s’entendre is a common French saying meaning “we are made for each other,” but in a literal translation means “we are made to listen.” Clearly, Elbé wanted to make a statement about the need to listen to one another and try to understand what other people are trying to say, even if one can’t hear them speak. All well and good. But couldn’t he have done so without resorting to such a formula storyline? Everything follows an arc previously seen in Hollywood romances of the Nineties, which themselves were copying superior films made in the Thirties and Forties.
Hear Me Out does do one thing very well, and that’s using sound itself as the basis for comedy. We frequently hear things from Antoine’s perspective, and the humor comes from his reactions to sounds being too quiet, too loud, or too confusing to him while everyone else goes on their merry way. One of the reasons Jerry Lewis and his mentor Frank Tashlin are revered by French critics is that they both made inventive use of sound in conjunction with visuals, and these scenes definitely owe a debt to them. It’s too bad the American influences didn’t end there.