Movie review: ‘French Postcards’

I remember first watching “French Postcards,” a youth-oriented comedy-drama, on HBO back in the day – most likely early 1981. I missed its premiere run in theaters probably because it wasn’t in the action or comedy genres that captivated me at the time and I certainly would never have believed it could be any good. It would have looked to me as it was one of those emotion-centric flicks that make you want to vomit at the very thought of it. However, that all changed at a 2 a.m. showing on HBO and I found that “French Postcards” is a marvelous gem of a film about American students studying (mostly each other) in France. “French Postcards” has an excellent cast and there’s no true headliner since the ensemble cast of characters all contribute equally. It’s a little-remembered film that’s worth the effort to find.

‘French Postcards’
(1979; 95 minutes; rated PG; directed by Willard Huyck and starring Miles Chapin, Blanche Baker and David Marshall Grant)

LIFE DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK OUT AS EXPECTED

(NOTE: I updated this film review June 25, 2015, with some new links, more trivia and a little more opinion. I then revisited it again on Feb. 1, 2017, and updated links and added a bit more trivia. I again expanded the review on Nov. 1, 2019.)

The husband-and-wife team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz have impeccable credentials. After all he’s a film school pal of George Lucas the two collaborated on the screenplays for “American Graffiti” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Doesn’t get much better than that, does it? OK, so “Temple of Doom” isn’t a great example, but it is an “Indiana Jones” movie.

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Despite the popularity of those two films, I believe that their effort with “French Postcards,” while not an “American Graffiti,” is one of those gems that too easily get overlooked. It is certainly much, much better acted than “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and is head-and-shoulders better than their effort with the stinker called “Howard the Duck.” Maybe because the title of “French Postcards” made it sound like something you did via mail order back in the day?

In “French Postcards” a group of American students arrive in France for a year abroad at the “Institute of French Studies.” Of course, each has his or her own agenda of expectations and orientations. The story is framed through a series of postcards written home by Blanche Baker playing “Laura” and the notes are written to a boy who backed out of the trip of a lifetime at the last moment.

You’ll find all the stereotypes you expect, from the bookish nerd who blossoms, crashes and then rebounds to the “worldly wise” friend who gets caught in the middle of his teachers’ marital woes and the young woman who is just too earnest to make the year in France into the perfect thing (even though it is anything but).

So, let’s take a look at both the actors and the film’s story through the characters. Here’s the top of the cast:

  • Ostensibly the lead is played by Miles Chapin, who was also in “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on the Moon.” Here he is “Joel,” who is the fastidious, somewhat scared soul who wants to do everything correctly before coming out of his shell and into his own. Chapin, who stepped away from Hollywood after a brief career in in show business, is perfectly cast and does as good a job as any actor could here. He was in the Huyck and Katz crapfest “Howard the Duck” and has worked several times with Milos Forman. (Note: See more about Chapin’s life, which has been much more interesting than his acting career, in the notes at the end of this review.)
  • Competing with Chapin is Primetime Emmy nominee David Marshall Grant, who plays “Alex.” Grant, who was been in a variety of films from his wonderful turn with Kevin Costner in “American Flyers” (click here for my review) to “The Devil Wears Prada” and “The Chamber,” is looking for the more “life experience” side of Paris and ultimately finds it in the oh-so-willing arms of his teacher (Marie-France Pisier as “Catherine Tessier”). Grant gives a solid, no-nonsense performance. “French Postcards” is Grant’s first acting credit. He was nominated for “The Legend of Billy the Kid.”
  • A Primetime Emmy winner, Baker isn’t very effective. Her “Laura” works too hard at making the trip to France the “greatest year of my life.” Besides being left to go alone by her boyfriend back home, she’s alienated by her peers because of her attitude (she’s insistent on seeing all 212 notable sights in Paris from the Michelin guidebook). Baker, who has also been in “Sixteen Candles” and “The Seduction of Joe Tynan,” which was her first motion picture role and released the same year as “French Postcards,” ultimately turns out to be vulnerable, likeable and, in a character evolution that isn’t as sappy as it could have been, finds the happiness she sought all along. Baker gives a strong performance with apparent ease and won her Emmy for “Holocaust.”

Moving on along …

  • Chapin’s love interest is Valerie Quennessen, who plays “Toni.” The two meet when Chapin is shopping for school supplies and she’s forced to apologize for her standoffish service. Quennessen, who was “Conan the Barbarian,” gave up acting after the release in 1982 of the steamy threesome film “Summer Lovers” with Daryl Hannah and Peter Gallagher (she wanted to turn her full-time attention to her family). She gives a special performance here, morphing from distant to approachable to truly sharing her emotions with Chapin. She died in a car crash in 1989 at 31.
  • Further down the chart are Pisier and noted character actor Jean Rochefort as the husband and wife team who run the institute. Their marriage isn’t great (he’s cheating and she’s at first looking without looking and then getting) and both do great turns here: Pisier as the seeker who vulnerable beneath the veneer of culture and Rochefort is pitch-perfect as the pompous educator who looks down his Parisian nose at America and Americans. Pisier was also in “The Other Side of Midnight,” “Cousin Cousine” and “Seven Sundays” while Rochefort was in “Ridicule” and “ Bean’s Holiday” among his 156 acting credits. I liked him best in “Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” (click here for my review) and they stupidly renamed the movie “Too Many Chefs.” Pisier drowned in her pool in 2011 at 66 and Rochefort died at 87 in 2017 in Paris.
  • Debra Winger, who plays the carefree “Melanie,” does a good but not a remarkable or notable one here. It’s the same for Mandy Patinkin in his brief role as “Sayyid,” who takes Baker to a festival but first tries and fails to have his way with her in a motel. Winger would go on to much better turns in “Urban Cowboy,” “An Officer and a Gentleman” (she snagged one of her three Oscar nominations for this one) and “Betrayed” (click here for my review) where she’s an FBI agent undercover investigating a racist right-wing organization. Patinkin would go on to critically acclaimed roles and do work including “Homeland,” “Yentl,” “Ragtime” and TV’s “Chicago Hope.”

Although the film kind of splutters out with its closing scene showing an airplane taking Chapin and Quennessen to America, it ends neatly and, as I wrote earlier, without being sappy. I believe a neat sequel would have been to follow Grant and Baker on their trip to Greece, but it didn’t happen.

It would take deeper research than I’ll do for this review to find the box office numbers for “French Postcards.” Even so, I doubt that “French Postcards” would have had made anything more than a blip at the box office because of its eclectic story and cast – and it didn’t help that it debuted in the middle of a 10-week run at the top of the box office by Bo Derek in “10” (click here for my review). The No. 1 film and No. 1 snifflebag was “Kramer vs. Kramer,” which earned $106.2 million domestically for that overrated crapfest. Here are the films from 1979 that I’ve reviewed:

Additional cast and notes (via IMDb.com):

  • After leaving show business in 1982 to turn her attention to her family, tragedy struck for Quennessen when she was killed in a car crash in France in 1989 at the age of 31. She had just been in a French TV show in a brief return to the entertainment stage.
  • Tragedy also struck in 2011 in France when Pisier, 66, drowned in a swimming pool accident at her home.
  • French Postcards” with its youth-oriented cast brings the second movie credit for Baker and the third for Winger and Patinkin.
  • Chapin is the great-great grandson of the founder of Steinway & Sons pianos and added to his resume by writing the book “88 keys–The Making of a Steinway Piano.” Since leaving acting with his last credit in 2001, here’s what Wiki says he’s been doing: “In addition to his acting career, Chapin has worked in recent years as a sales consultant for Steinway & Sons Piano manufacturers. He and his father have returned to the familial business in recent years. Chapin’s father was the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs of New York City for eight years under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and has been a major force in the arts having acted as director of such important venues as the Metropolitan Opera, and The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.”

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