As often happens, the Cannes Film Festival made an excitable entrance into the media and influence of 2009, only to slip away through the disorientation some time later with its prizes. Did it open with Pixar’s UP? Tarantino and his Basterds were certainly there, and the inevitable flinch rippled out from Lars von Trier’s ever-cutting edge, but who even knows the name of that film? Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon won; I just Googled it. But other than all of this, the real winner, in Britain at least, and if we’re talking about exposure, was Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric.
Finished article aside, the people, intention and clever delivery behind this film virtually ensure its success, both here and abroad (in France). First of all, Ken Loach is a gnarly old socialist who has portrayed the plight of the proletariat in his ‘back to basics’ films for decades. The French love that kind of shit (I’m trying to sound cool, not demeaning – that kind of shit is actually quite important), particularly, I suspect, because it gives them a little kick to watch from their republic, through Loach’s candid binoculars, the steadily privatised demise of the British working class. A previous Palme d’Or winner with The Wind That Shakes The Barley, and now eight times nominee, Loach barely needed to turn up with Eric Cantona on his sleeve and in his film in order to gain respect. But respect is one thing, popularity another.
Looking For Eric is pitched as an ‘unlikely’ and ‘surprising’ film, and its inevitable success equally so, but really, Don Draper couldn’t have sold this film any better. Loach’s preceding reputation and ingenious paring with national hero, Cantona, could only have re-affirmed his film’s courtships with the French media and, in Britain, basically the same reasoning will only serve to galvanise the universal (but particularly British) obsessions of film and football into what I would be willing to bet on being the largest audience of Loach’s fourty-five year career.
The real trick that this film has pulled, however, is that it isn’t a gimmick, the likes of which we know can bring bums and seats together, but a great little film, only the likes of which can keep bums and seats in happy companionship. It just so happens that, as with the best of teams behind the best of stories, this film has fallen, or been dropped, at the right time, in the right place and with the right people.
Someone – I can’t remember who – once said that a good independent film director has to be a good entrepreneur, and the best, in my opinion, are the ones that achieve their financial success not via the unseen and unrelated backroom deals of Cannes, but via the story they wish to shoot. Woven into the coupling of celebrity and reality that ignites the story of Looking For Eric – and I say this with admiration, not cynicism – is an inherent, leggy marketability that needs little more than the room to run.
Despite Eric Cantona doing Jonathan Ross and the rounds, it’s Eric Bishop, played by relatively unknown Steve Evets, who is the star of this film, and it is his disjointed and dismantling real life, not the legendary triumph of Cantona’s career, that is dealt with in this fiction. With trademark, handheld dedication to story and character/actors, Loach proves once again that audiences don’t (and film-makers shouldn’t) necessarily give two hoots about the Hollywood conventions of lighting, sound and image when confronted with the results of veteran intuition. The results are unusually believable, funny and therefore touching.
It’s testimonial, again, to the film’s ripe exposure that most of you know what the story has in store for you before even setting foot in the cinema: A middle-aged Mancunian post-man hits a dead-end, from which he is helped by the once hero and now imaginary friend, Eric Cantona, that such crisis-of-self conjures.
But don’t take this as an excuse not to bother; there is more to this film’s narrative and impact than the bittersweet salvation that you probably expect. Football fans may come away forgetting why they went in the first place and film fans may come away with a strange new respect for football, but the film is neither a glorification of fantasy or reality. Through the script – the relationship that develops between the Erics – it seeks to reveal and embrace the uncertainties and inadequacies of both escapism and realism, in film and real life, and somehow achieves satisfaction in this literal and metaphorical meeting of ideals. It is a humorous premise, and this humour is key to the film’s success in overcoming the more hard-hitting elements of its story; reason perhaps for the advertised emphasis of its comedy and more powerful shock of its unmentioned underbelly.
Most crucially though, and not out of character for Loach, this film is a shamefully rare and useful piece of advice. Loach’s real gift is to be able to uphold the principles of responsibility within his story-telling without ever seeming preachy, and I think Looking For Eric, along with the excellent Sweet Sixteen, demonstrates his continuing refusal to settle for less. Issues shift and dismantled workforces become disenfranchised youth, but at least there are a few people around who are clever enough to offer depiction or even solution to such issues.
And, let’s face it, Eric Cantona’s a fucking legend too.