Alain Gaash is not Jewish enough. In Graham Guit’s 2009 romantic comedy Hello Goodbye, Gaash (Gerard Depardieu) is not Jewish enough for his colleagues, for his family (he married a gentile, and his mother won’t let him forget it), or for Israel. He’s only Jewish enough for the Gestapo, he angrily points out to his wife (Fanny Ardant) after an excruciating dinner party at the home of one of his colleagues. “What about me?” she asks anxiously. “Yes, you too, honey,” he comforts her. “We’ll all be gassed together.”
The dinner party turned out to be a seder, to the surprise of Alain and his wife. Gisele notices a mezuzah on the door frame, but it’s the first time the couple has any inkling his colleague is Jewish–after all, the guy’s name is Saint-Alban. When Mme. Saint-Alban answers the door, Alain hands her a bottle of wine. “Is it kosher?” she asks. No, it isn’t. When they sit down to eat, Saint-Alban hands Alain a yarmulke and insists he say the prayer. When Alain refuses, Saint-Alban’s mother says he’s not Jewish.
“Yes, I am.” “What’s your name?” “Gaash.” “That’s not Jewish.” “Yes, it’s Lithuanian. Ashkenazi.” (Pause.) “But you’re not circumcised,” she counters. “No,” he concedes, “My parents thought it was too barbaric.” (Awkward and appalled silence.) “See? He’s not Jewish!” the old matriarch proclaims triumphantly.
The seder is the funniest scene of the film, and unfortunately, it’s over in the first five minutes. Eventually, Alain is not Jewish enough for his wife, and the film takes a somewhat tragic turn. Alain is happy as a successful gynecologist living in Paris, but Gisele, in a midlife quest for meaning, wants to move to Israel.
“Do you know how many gynecologists there are in Israel?” he’s asked by more than one Israeli bureaucrat. “No,” he says. The answer: “A lot.” Alain has to take a job washing cars. He lives in a hostel because he got swindled in a seaside property deal. And his wife, who’s falling in love with her rabbi, won’t have sex with him until he gets circumcised, which, in the most meant-to-be-funny-but-really-really-isn’t moment of the film, he does.
The film might have a lot to say about the complexity of Jewish identity or about the (broken) promises of Israel, but it falls short of profound when it hastily wraps up with a pat ending. Nevertheless, the film remains amusing, and Depardieu’s subtle performance makes the implausible plot seem possible. Hello Goodbye comes to the Michigan Theater April 29 as part of the Jewish Film Festival, which starts today.