God is Great and I’m Not stars Audry Tautou who soared to fame in her wildly popular later film, Amelie. As is usual with such "overnight success," Tautou actually has been on screen for some years now and has a long list of credits. (See Gary Mairs’ review of Venus Beauty Institute from 1999.) God is Great, even with the commercial advantage of Tautou’s newfound stardom, had great difficulty finding an American distributor, which is probably more an indictment of the current distribution system which leaves little room for imports than a reflection on the film itself. While it is not by any means a film for the ages, it is a light entertainment of some charm and surely superior to most of the comedies that fill the multiplexes.
Michele (Tautou) is a twenty year old high fashion model who has just had an abortion and dumped her boy friend. In her unhappiness, she turns to God, but the Catholic faith of her childhood doesn’t answer her spiritual need. She turns to Buddhism, but tends to fall asleep during meditation: "All this positive energy is exhausting!"
Then she meets Francois (Edouard Baer), a veteranarian and a non-practicing Jew. It goes further than that, though, because Francois hides his Jewish identity; he’s a closeted Jew. Michele starts to read up on Judaism, more as a new spiritual alternative than as a way to please Francois. On the contrary, her interest and his state of denial combine to become the barricade that stands between them even as they commence an affair. She hangs a mezuzah on the door of his apartment and he angrily demands she take it down: "You want the whole building to know I’m Jewish?"
Director and co-writer Pascale Bailly also brings Michele’s mother and Francoise’s parents into the story. The former is a suicidal depressive in a bad marriage, hardly a role model for her young daughter. Aside from her negative example, she adds little to the motivation, plot, or humor. Francoise’s parents come on a visit from their home in Israel; similarly, Bailly fails to make their presence significantly meaningful.
At the heart of the film, then, is the conflict between Michele’s ever growing interest in Jewish ritual and Francoise’s resistance. Somewhere underneath he does have some strong feelings about his cultural identity. (His father is a Holocaust survivor.) He emotionally criticizes Michele’s use of the word "Holocaust," explaining the more acceptable "Shoah." But that’s about the only hint that Bailly provides. On the other hand, when they’re watching TV together, she wants to see a film about the Nazis (Lubitsch’s dark comedy To Be or Not To Be), while he wants to watch Jaws. That joke is duplicated in an argument about going to the movies to see Shoah or a Godard film.
There are some funny bits such as Michele inadvertently lighting a cigarette from the menorah, wrestling with the rules of what can or cannot be done on Shabbat, and Francoise sneaking some food on Yom Kippur. Without question, Tautou and Baer are charming and attractive actors.
But when Michele thinks she may be pregnant again, Bailly hasn’t done enough character-building groundwork to support the responses. She neither digs under the surface of their differences nor manages to sufficiently ground their motivations. Other characters slip in and out of the story without being developed or adding new levels or complications of interest. The two leads flip back and forth between fighting and loving with such frequency that it becomes a pattern without resolution, thus leaving the overarching storyline somewhat flat and without tension.
God is Great displays the potential for a better movie than what Bailly manages to deliver. At one point she uses a Woody Allen book as a prop. On the one hand that’s an homage; other the other, it could be read as presumptuous. In kindness, read it as a goal to which this young director aspires.