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‘Student and Mister Herni’ is a charming confection

If “The Student and Mister Henri” was a New York-set Hollywood studio production starring Robert De Niro and Emma Watson, it would likely seem cloying and cliché-riddled. However, as a French-language drama starring two likable leads and taking place in ever-gorgeous Paris, it goes down like a bonbon — not filling, but quite tasty.

It’s a charming confection, a story that teeters on the edge of sitcom but never falls in. Directed and written by Ivan Calbérac and based on his play, “The Student and Mister Henri” aims to please and mostly succeeds.

The “Student” of the title is Constance, a sweet, good-natured girl played by Noémie Schmidt. It could be a star-making performance for Schmidt, who beautifully captures the distinctly young-adult feeling of going nowhere.

Unable to pass her school exams and seemingly destined to work at her domineering father’s fruit stand in Orléans, France, Constance jumps at the chance to answer an apartment for rent ad in Paris.

There is a catch, of course, in the form of Mister Henri. He is a sour senior played by Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” star Claude Brasseur, a widower with no interest in taking on a boarder. It is instead the idea of his son Paul (Guillaume de Tonquédec).

Nevertheless, a deal is struck, and despite their differences Henri and Constance are soon engaging in affable banter. (Henri to Constance after she complains about a cold shower: “Wimp. You’ve never known war.”)

Things take a dim turn when Henri has an idea: Constance can stay for free if she attempts to break up his son’s marriage. That’s a rather weak plot point, and an unnecessary one, especially since Paul’s wife Valérie (Frédérique Bel) is presented as a bit annoying, but certainly not awful.

It doesn’t take much for the dorky Paul to fall for Constance; her pretend adoration of his favorite soccer team and Hesse’s “Knulp” does the trick. Happily, this thread does not dominate the rest of the film. While it does lead to some humor (Paul wears a leather jacket, Paul goes clubbing), it feels awfully tacked-on.

What works wonderfully, though, is the relationship between Henri and Constance. Every scene between Schmidt and Brasseur is a pleasure, and even the more obvious turns tend to delight.

The film ends in expected, heart-tugging fashion, but the student and Mister Henri are so well-played that it’s hard not to feel satisfied. While it’s not particularly original, “The Student and Mister Henri” understand that good casting can make even a tired plot seem delicious.


3 stars (out of 4)

“The Student and Mister Henri”

Starring: Claude Brasseur, Noémie Schmidt, Guillaume de Tonquédec, Frédérique Bel

Director: Ivan Calbérac

Running time: 98 minutes

Rated: No MPAA rating, but PG-13 equivalent for language and adult situations.

The lowdown: An elderly curmudgeon lets a room in his large apartment rent-free to a young student, on condition that she ruins his son’s marriage. In French with English subtitles.

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