Ruben, a young gay Frenchman, wants to get as far as possible from his crazy Jewish family. So he does the obvious: He moves to Finland to pursue a degree in comparative sauna cultures. When his study plan goes awry, he becomes a mail carrier in a small Finnish town, and falls in love with a hot blond local named Teemu. Life seems idyllic . . . until a misunderstanding prompts his lover to throw him out of the cabin they share in the woods. It all happens just in time for Ruben to reunite with his family — disastrously — for Passover in Paris.
If this all sounds rather farcical, that’s because it’s the plot of “Let My People Go!,” a new French comedy opening Friday in New York and Jan. 18 in Los Angeles.
“I’m a huge fan of Billy Wilder,” said Mikael Buch, the film’s 29-year-old director, speaking by phone with The Times of Israel. “And he always said that if you are going to tell the truth, you’d better be funny, or they will kill you.”
A graduate of the prestigious La Fémis film school in Paris, Buch heeded his idol’s advice while co-writing and directing his first feature-length movie, loosely based on his own life as a gay son in a traditional Jewish family.
“The basic setup is me and my experience of Jewish family and community, but then I let my imagination take off,” Buch explained.
‘Stereotypes play a big part in life. They are the images we have of what we think we are supposed to be’
“The film is inspired by real things, but it is purposely bigger than life,” he added, referring to the movie’s slightly retro visual design, which gives it an atemporal, fairy-tale-like air even as it deals with contemporary issues.
While Buch has never studied saunas in Finland, he, like his protagonist, has a history of relocating. He was born in Marseilles, and moved with his family to Taipei when he was very young. After five years there, they continued on to Barcelona, where Buch lived until he turned 18 and returned to France to study filmmaking.
“My father is from Argentina, and his father was from Germany, and my mother is from Morocco. They met on a kibbutz in Israel,” Buch shared. “I guess you could say they were globetrotters who kept moving in search of a home.”
Buch’s parents still live in Barcelona; his 26-year-old sister recently made aliya. “We have lots of family in Israel, and I used to visit there a lot in the summers. It feels like a second home to me,” the director said.
Buch’s family, which he describes as “traditional but not religious,” was very involved in Barcelona’s small Jewish community while he was growing up, observing holidays, attending synagogue and celebrating the future director’s bar mitzvah ceremony. At just 14, he founded a Jewish film festival in the Spanish city, which he happily reports is still taking place annually.
“My mother used to tell me that Judaism is like a big supermarket, where you can choose what you want to take off the shelves,” Buch said. “You can construct your own Judaism, which is what I did, and why being gay and being Jewish is not a conflict for me. Of course, we all struggle with things at one point, especially when we are teenagers, but my family was always very supportive.”
That acceptance is reflected in “Let My People Go!” — in which the central issue is not whether Ruben‘s family will reject his sexuality. Sexual orientation alone is not a relevant subject for gay filmmakers of his generation, Buch claimed.
“Gay filmmakers today don’t want to do coming-out stories, or stories about the problems of being gay,” he said. “It doesn’t speak to our experience.”
Instead, his film focuses on the different ways in which Ruben’s relatives respond to his identity — and to the eventual appearance of his ex-boyfriend in Paris. “But there is no question that his family will always accept him,” Buch said.
The actors he assembled to play the various, hilarious family members are an esteemed bunch. Successful Parisian stage actor Nicolas Maury plays Ruben; Truffaut regular Jean-François Stévenin plays his two-timing father; and Carmen Maura, the Spanish star of many Pedro Almodovar films, plays his ditzy mother.
Buch attributed his talented ensemble to connections he made via film school. “I got all my first choices for the cast,” he said. “It was like writing a Hanukkah list and getting everything on it.”
‘It’s the gap between the stereotypes and what really is that creates the comedy’
Buch said he developed a special connection with Maura, who was moved to see a young director with ties to Spain working in France. (Maura herself lives there for half the year).
“I directed her in Spanish, and she was very mother-like and protective of me,” Buch recalled. “The most important thing for a director is to have a human connection with the actors. The script is secondary.”
With Maury, who plays Ruben, Buch’s work extended to developing the story itself. Following previous collaborations on several short films, the two started out by developing the farcical character that eventually became Ruben.
“Knowing Nicolas gave me the courage to try comedy,” Buch said. The director credits the French actor with doing a lot of homework in preparing to play the protagonist, his first leading role in a film.
Buch acknowledges that, despite some surprise twists, “Let My People Go!” doesn’t traffic in nuance. (Viewers would know Maura’s playing a Jewish mother even if she didn’t wear a Star of David necklace and exercise at a community center named for Golda Meir.)
“Stereotypes play a big part in life,” the filmmaker insisted. “They are the images we have of what we think we are supposed to be. It’s the gap between the stereotypes and what really is that creates the comedy.”