In French director Pascale Bailly's latest film, "God Is Great, and I'm Not" ("Dieu Est Grand, Je Suis Toute Petite"), Michèle, a misguided 20-year-old, hates her family, has had an abortion and just dumped her loser boyfriend. In her despair, she asks God for help and turns to Buddhism. She braids her hair, wears Eastern-inspired clothes and attempts to meditate -- all to no avail.
Salvation comes -- well, almost -- in the shape of a Jew. (And no, it's not Jesus.)
Parisian Michèle (played by "Amélie" ingenue Audrey Tatou) meets François (Edouard Baer), a neurotic 32-year-old veterinarian, who, despite his complicated Jewish identity and Holocaust survivor parents, denies that he has any religion at all. The two soon fall in love and, naturally, Michèle discovers that Judaism may be her raison d' être. She begins a serious study of the religion, to her lover's profound indifference.
Bailly was inspired to write the film "by three different elements," she said, speaking through an interpreter at the Empire Pictures office on the 78th floor of the Empire State Building. "The first element was autobiographical. The second, I wanted to do something about children's relationships with their parents, the problems you can have when you're young, trying to liberate yourself from your parents. The third: I'm fascinated by impossible love stories."
"God Is Great," the third film for Bailly, who is not Jewish, hints at a phenomenon of philo-Semitism and fascination with things Jewish on a continent in which public displays of Jewish identity are rare. Despite an increase in anti-Semitic incidents and pervasive anti-Israel sentiment, Jewish studies programs at European universities are flourishing. As Ruth Ellen Gruber points out in her new book, "Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe" (University of California Press, 2002), more than 1,000 books on Jewish topics are published in German each year. Even supermodel Claudia Schiffer has jumped on board, lobbying for a Holocaust memorial in central Berlin.
"There is always an element" of Judaism in Bailly's life, said the filmmaker. "I am fascinated by difference and differences in religion; my adopted daughter is of African descent."
According to Bailly, 42, a relationship between a Jew and a non-Jew is an example of an impossible love story. "Some of her story is my story," Bailly says of Michèle, whose character was inspired in part by the relationship the director had as a 20-year-old with an older Jewish man.
The romance, which she describes as "tragic," profoundly affects her, 22 years later. "That meeting was very dramatic for me," Bailly said. "In the '80s, my generation had no understanding of the Shoah, the suffering of children of survivors. For me it was like planet Mars. I thought he was someone complicated, with problems, but afterward, I understood he was the son of survivors. I understood the process involved. I understood his rejection of myself. It changed my life, really."
"Judaism for me was always a big enigma," Bailly said. "Perhaps I made this film not to relive my story, but to understand it."
Bailly's treatment of the subject in the film, however, is extremely lighthearted and irreverent. Even though the film touches on weighty subjects such as identity, religion and the burden of the Holocaust, Bailly is interested in these differences to the extent that they elicit laughs: for example, after lovemaking, the happy couple lies in bed, François reading a veterinary trade magazine, Michèle reading about Jewish womanhood.
It's the kind of film about Judaism that only an outsider could make -- and yet, much of its humor plays like an inside joke for the Jewish community. Take the couple's celebration of Yom Kippur. Michèle, determined to prove her commitment to Judaism, insists that the couple fast; François, on the other hand, knit yarmulke on his head, helps himself to chicken from the refrigerator. Naturally, a lovers' quarrel ensues.
Bailly said she was surprised at the quick reactions elicited from the audience when the film premiered in March at a "Rendezvous With French Cinema" event at Manhattan's Lincoln Center.
"Here, there's a real understanding," she said. "In France it depends who sees it. Some people get it; some people don't. Here, people get it."
"Getting it" in New York may have something to do with, as comedian Lenny Bruce once observed, "If you live in New York, even if you're Catholic, you're Jewish." It may also have to do with the prevalence of intermarriage as a fact of American Jewish life, as well as a self-confidence within American society that makes it easier for Jews to poke fun at their neuroses.
Of course another factor may be Tatou -- with her porcelain skin, doe eyes, button nose and zero body fat -- who shot to stardom after "Amélie" became the highest-grossing French film in this country last year. "I directed ['God Is Great'] with an unknown actor," Bailly said. By the film's French release last year, however, "I immediately had a huge star."
"I wanted someone who was young and pretty, but with a lot of imagination and fantasy; someone who could be funny and dramatic at the same time." Tatou, Bailly said, "was the only one who could play the role."
Baer, a well-known TV comic who plays François, "was a real discovery for everyone. He wasn't known as an actor," Bailly said. "I think he accepted the role because the issues touched him. His father was quite old; he was Jewish and suffered a lot."
In the film, despite Michèle's attempt at conversion, the increasingly quarrelsome couple calls it quits. Although it is never explicit, Michèle suspects it is because she was not born a Jew. "If [François'] parents were different, he would marry her," Bailly said. "But they're who they are. Faced with his father's illness, Michèle doesn't exist anymore. She is rejected."
In the end, Michèle and François meet again at a friend's wedding, but Bailly is keeping mum about whether the two lovers reunite. "To be continued," the last scene says, although Bailly has no intention of making a sequel. "That's for each person to invent their own ending," she said.
Bailly turned to look me in the eye. "What do you think will happen?" she asked. But before hearing a response she said, "Well, you are Jewish, so you probably think they won't get back together."
"Ah, but I am an American Jew,"I replied. "I believe in happy endings."
"God Is Great, and I'm Not" opens Jan. 31 at the Laemmle Theatres. For more information, call (310) 478-1041.