Jean-François And The Meaning Of Life


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Jean-François And The Meaning Of Life
"Megias acquits himself well, presenting us with a complex character whose emotions run deep."

Sometimes the worst thing about school isn't the bullies, even when they're constantly pushing you around and threatening to beat you. Sometimes it's having nobody to talk to. 12-year-old Francesc (Max Megias) doesn't find his mother much help in that regard either. The only person who seems to have anything intelligent to say is his psychologist, and it's from the psychologists that he learns about the connection between the existentialists whose work he adores and Café de Flores in Paris. So he packs a bag, changes is name to Jean-François and runs away from his Barcelona home to go and meet Albert Camus - not knowing that Camus has been dead for 50 years.

There is inevitable disappointment at the end of this journey, but that's not all there is. Travelling opens our young hero's eyes to the world, especially after he acquires a companion in the shape of older teenager girl Lluna (Claudia Vega), who is on her way to visit a boy who hasn't been answering her letters. Lluna can do things like driving and buying rail tickets without arousing suspicion, whilst Jean-François has some money and claims he can read maps. Despite Lluna's great experience of the world, she's still naive enough to believe him when he tells her that he came from an orphanage and no-one will miss him. The two form a bond that's threatened by his petty jealousy and her sometimes unthinking meanness but it's the rough as much as the smooth that gives Jean-François what he needs to get a better grip on life. Along the way, of course, he falls in love with her.

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Sergi Portabella's début feature film relies heavily on its young lead for its charm and energy. Megias acquits himself well, presenting us with a complex character whose emotions run deep. The gap between this emotional complexity and the cool, sophisticated air he affects - which Lluna too often takes at face value - provides much of the film's humour, yet it never feels as if we're laughing at Jean-François' expense. He's precocious but never really pretentious and most viewers will remember a time when life presented them with similar challenges, even if they didn't respond to them in the same way.

The road movie format is an old one but this film is sufficiently focused on character to make it work, and the dynamic between the two leads keeps it interesting without straining credulity. There's a culture clash element as Jean-François, who speaks Catalan at home, makes his way through Spain and France, with several characters using multiple languages in a way that hinders communication as much as it facilitates it. This sits nicely alongside the clash between youthful and adult perspectives, which throws up similar challenges. Meanwhile, we get just enough glimpses of our hero's frantic mother to appreciate how little she and her beloved Francesc understand one another. Resolving that difficulty takes the film beyond its central quest and into more difficult but equally dramatic territory.

A beautifully balanced film that finds hope in difficult places, Jean-François And The Meaning Of Life doesn't worry too much about meaning but invites the viewer to experience joy in the struggle itself.

Reviewed on: 22 Mar 2019
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A 12-year-old existentialist kid runs away from home to meet his favourite philosopher, Albert Camus, not knowing he has been dead for 50 years. On his way he finds love and rejection for the first time in his life.

Director: Sergi Portabella

Writer: Sergi Portabella

Starring: Claudia Vega, Eudald Font, Théo Cholbi

Year: 2018

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: Spain, France


Viva 2019

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