Jamel DebbouzeHenri Bergson, in his 1901 essay Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, says that all comedy can be boiled down to noticing mechanical behavior in something living. Laughter is an acknowledgement and reminder to ourselves (and others) to be more sensitive to reality – to try to follow the real contours of life as they happen instead of following some predetermined pattern.

The mind, distracted by something, fails to notice the lamp post, and the body – in its mechanical way – just keeps on going.

There’s little that French people laugh at more loudly than seeing someone stumble into something, and though there’s not much physical stumbling in Agnès Jaoui’s new movie Let’s Talk About the Rain, there’s an awful lot of the metaphysical kind.

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Jaoui stars as a hard-headed careerist launching a new life in politics and her long-time screen partner (and real-life husband) Jean-Pierre Bacri plays an utterly inept yet supremely confident hack photographer. But the living pulse of the movie finds its rhythm in Jamel Debbouze.

Debbouze is virtually unknown outside France, but within it he’s the most famous non-white Frenchman other than Zinedine Zidane. A stand-up comic and actor, Debbouze is a wiry and intense young man, here playing Karim, the son of an Arab housekeeper who has looked after Jaoui’s family for decades and who lives in the guest house of one of those sprawling country manses that seems to be every (white) French family’s natural cinematic birthright.

Like Michael Haneke’s Hidden, this movie is about the son of an immigrant who has been left as a second-class citizen by a bourgeouis French family. But where the underclass of Hidden were mute, foreboding and utterly cut off from the rest of the film, we see the complicated interweaving of lives here, the small everyday irritations. And the immigrant’s son has quite a bit to say.

Karim wants to change his life. He’s a hotel clerk but has artistic ambitions. At the beginning of the movie we’re made to understand that he lacks motivation, needing the guiding hand of Bacri’s experience to lift him up to something better – but this schematic breaks down quickly, and Karim becomes virtually the only character with any kind of real self-awareness. Debbouze becomes, despite his background in making people laugh for a living, the least mechanical and least comic actor in the film.

As the two make an ill-conceived and disastrous documentary about Jaoui (because she’s a “strong woman”), we go deep into the family’s past, its relationship with Karim’s mother, various infidelities and yearnings, farm politics, feminism, and the extent to which one can lie to oneself. That all these themes can unfold so naturally is a real achievement. But what’s really amazing is that it’s all so funny.

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Bergson warns that any trace of pity for a potentially comic character can render the comedy inert – that laughter is a form of “social ragging” which must always humiliate its object in some way. But the laughs here are seldom simple mockery.

In Jaoui’s most nakedly vulnerable moment, she calls her longtime boyfriend (the fantastic Frédéric Pierrot) a few days after breaking up. She gets his answering machine and she’s a mess – crying as she pretends that she’s calling for any other reason than just to hear his voice. When she finally admits how much she needs him she freaks, and concludes, just before hanging up, “Please don’t listen to this message!”

Her sense of control is so ingrained that she imagines she can even subvert the linear procession of time. She can’t. Her heartbreak is palpable but her line is hilarious – and we take the one with the other comfortably.

I had never seen Bacri before – he’s a total ecosystem of bluster, avuncular wisdom and reassurance, but it’s based on nothing. He’s the kind of man who can convince himself of anything. He sits in a restaurant with his pubescent son, who asks him about a certain kind of dessert. Bacri adopts a knowing air, gesturing as if putting into words something he has only ever known by touch and instinct: “It’s a kind of custard, a.. it’s a flan. It’s basically a flan. Sometimes with some raspberry sauce.” He smiles. When the waiter arrives, Bacri can’t help asking about it, and the waiter replies, “It’s vanilla ice cream with candied fruit.” Bacri looks shocked. “It’s not a flan?” “No, monsieur. Ice cream. With candied fruit.” As the waiter retreats Bacri looks pensive and a bit disapproving.

“Pffft. They don’t even serve it with raspberry sauce.”