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The West Wing
GOD IS GREAT AND I'M NOT, 2001
Starring Audrey Tautou, Edward Baer, Julie Depardieu
Michèle, a 20-year-old Parisian model, finds herself on a spiritual quest after becoming disenchanted with Catholicism. She struggles to relate to her melodramatic mother and distant stepfather and, after breaking up with her boyfriend, falls for much older veterinarian François. François, a non-practicing Jew, intrigues Michèle who begins to think that converting—and François—are for her.
Dieu Est Grande, Je Suis Toute Petite (translated somewhat idiosyncratically as God Is Great, and I’m Not) stars Audrey Tautou as Michèle, the same year she rocketed to international fame in the English-speaking world in Amélie. Her warm, charming, though eccentric performance shares much in common with that famous eponymous role. Joined by other veterans of the French silver screen, they weave a somewhat unusual tale set in contemporary Paris.
Michèle (Audrey Tautou) leaves her friend and roommate Valérie’s (Julie Depardieu) latest party sad because of her recent break up with her boyfriend Bertrand. On her way to church she is followed by a fellow party-goer, veterinarian François (Edward Baer), whose persistent attentions eventually win her over. He follows her into church and the kisses initiated there end up taking them to François’ flat. Things turn ominous, however, when François discovers Michèle unconscious.
Valérie tries to reassure François, but he is spooked by having spent one night with the unpredictable 20-year-old and having her attempt suicide in his flat. It’s Bertrand, instead, who visits Valérie in the hospital and is immediately rebuffed. Later, recovered, Michèle spends time with her mother Evelyne (Catherine Jacob) and older sister Florence, but Florence is left having to pick up the pieces between the volatile pair.
Michèle is a model and spends the downtime during her outrageous fashion shoots by reading books about spirituality. She has recently become disenchanted with Catholicism and tries to approach holiness through various other religions. She is practicing Buddhism when she accidentally runs into François in the street. The two eventually go to the bookstore together, where Michèle inadvertently discovers that, despite professing atheism, François comes from a Jewish background. They have a violent quarrel that simmers when they run into Bertrand. Reaffirming that she is now with François, Michèle has accepted both Bruce the golden retriever and buys a mezuzah for François’ flat.
Thus begins Michèle’s quest to study Judaism during her on-again, off-again relationship with François. Michèle seeks the advice of her friend Joseph at the movies; she studies the Talmud and tries to observe Shabbat. Her earnestness drives her mother crazy when she goes to visit, and tensions between them and her stepfather are near breaking-point. François’ parents, Regine and Simon, unexpectedly arrive from Israel, and François slowly turns away from Michèle as his father’s illness grows worse.
Nevertheless, Michèle affirms her decision to convert by taking, with François, Jewish studies classes at the synagogue from a sympathetic rabbi. Will her studies lead to marriage? Conversion? When it seems their relationship is crumbling, will Michèle’s faith and devotion to Judaism likewise dissolve? What will happen if the two unexpectedly have a child together?
God Is Great and I’m Not is utterly idiosyncratic. Michèle is an impetuous character, beautiful and kittenish but hard to take seriously. “You’re such a pain!” François frequently tells her. She is quick to anger and set against François’ equally voluble nature, it’s no wonder the two are in constant conflict. In an infamous scene, Michèle lights a cigarette on the menorah candles in front of Regine, Simon, and François, claiming she didn’t know any better. “You did that on purpose!” François accuses through the rest of the film. Yet such a flagrant scene is followed by one of Michèle looking at Regine and Simon’s collection of books in Hebrew at night by the light of the menorah.
An English-language version of this film would be totally different, much more formulaic romantic-comedy, and the spiritual message by the end would be clear. Instead, Michèle is not very likeable, and François’ edgy denial of his heritage matched with his aggressiveness don’t make him a conventional hero, either. Director Pascal Bailly uses short stop-and-start scenes that fade/black out as well as handheld camera techniques that are both jarring and distinctive. Despite the colorful packaging, God Is Great does not go for any easy home truths. It’s not a feel-good movie about obtaining absolute spiritual fulfilment. However, a lush soundtrack and Tautou’s acting make it worth the long, strange ride.