A self-pitying yuppie couple in the self-pitying movie "Holy Lola" rampage blindly through Cambodia in search of a baby to adopt.
By JOSHUA TANZER
"Holy Lola" is a movie about the prototypical Ugly American abroad. Except he's not American, he's French.
Directed by: Bertrand Tavernier.
Written by: Dominique Sampiero, Bertrand Tavernier, Tiffany Tavernier.
Cinematography: Alain Choquart.
Edited by: Sophie Brunet.
In French with English subtitles.
Bertrand Tavernier (known in the U.S. for "Round Midnight") went to Cambodia and came back with a movie that doesn't have a lot of Cambodia in it. Rather, it has a lot of French people in it. The film offers a tunnel-vision travel video of the country as seen through the eyes of a French couple desperate to adopt a beautiful, healthy, non-HIV-infected, non-hepatitis-B Cambodian baby, along with all the other infertile French couples competing for the same thing.
Pierre and Geraldine arrive at a hotel that's become adoption centrale for childless French couples. Frazzled would-be parents trade tales of the indignities they've had to put up with, and exchange scuttlebutt about where in the 3AAA an unclaimed baby might just have been squeezed out. When they arrive at the rumored orphanage, the baby has already been snapped up, but the couple is welcome to inspect the remaining tots through a window like so many crustaceans in a restaurant lobster tank.
They are directed at one point to a Dr. Sim Duong, who seems to be the guy who knows where the adorable little bodies are buried around Cambodia. Barging into his clinic, they find him up to his stethoscope in mutilated locals — and it's surprising, since our man Pierre is a doctor back home in Auvergne, that he doesn't feel the need to pitch in and help. But now, he's solidly in "gimmeababy gimmeababy gimmeababy" mode and he's perfectly willing to barge in and interrupt the clinic's treatment of people with gaping wounds to inquire whether Dr. Duong can send them home happy.
And this is how most of the movie goes. We're meant to sympathize with this self-absorbed couple as they pursue their own desire to the exclusion of everything else around them. Only once or twice in two-plus hours is there a break in their solipsistic bubble. In one case, the couple actually stops at the scene of a serious traffic accident to help somebody else for a change, and the doctor's ministrations lead to a dinner invitation in the countryside which leads to some amazing stories of how people survived the years of war. If the movie were about something other than the protagonists' egos, there would be more scenes like this. As it turns out, the evening makes so little impression on our friend Pierre that he doesn't even remember one of the storytellers when they meet again later in the film.
As they complete their mission to parachute into this Third World country, ignore everything around them and escape with a baby, you would think these people might feel a little twinge that there's something they're missing in their tour, that there's something unseemly about their singleminded yuppie plundering. But no! They can live with themselves quite easily, knowing that they are not the true villains of this story. That would be ... the Americans!
While the Frenchies merely show up in ones and twos and try to work the bureacracy themselves, the Americas (they hear) have industrialized the process, creating a money-driven baby-extraction machine that leaves others in the dust. "They take 200 orphans a year. It's too much. Too much! It doesn't rain orphans!" Dr. Duong tells Pierre and Geraldine. "So countries like yours come in second."
Aha! The bad guys are the Americans with their big bucks and heartless capitalism, ruining the world for the humble French. And on the other side are the Cambodian functionaries with their petty demands, making life miserable for the virtuous French. Whichever way you look at it, the problem is never the second-fiddle French.
And that's the problem with the movie. We're asked to have empathy for this couple when they have no empathy for others. The worst that can happen to them is that they go home as childless as they were when they left, with petty mutual recriminations as the only souvenirs of their journey. Neither the characters nor the filmmakers have been touched by what they've had a chance to see on their foreign adventure.
In one empty gesture late in the film, the couple go visit the museum at the former S21 prison — we see them walk wordlessly through a room lined with mug shots of the inmates murdered there by the Khmer Rouge. If you haven't seen the stunning documentary "S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine," you will have no idea what this scene is about — it's just a momentary filler scene. But here's what it's about: cinematic tourism. Tavernier even cast "S21" filmmaker Rithy Panh in a small role, in a bid to borrow some authenticity from somebody who actually made a great movie. But the mere fact that Tavernier has seen a great film about Cambodia doesn't mean he's made one.