“Foreign Student” has such a good, offbeat premise and such winning performances from Marco Hofschneider and Robin Givens, it’s a shame that it’s only so-so when it could have been terrific.
Hofschneider was the charismatic young star of “Europa, Europa,” in which he played a Polish Jew who winds up in the German army during World War II. Here he plays Philippe, an 18-year-old Frenchman who wins a one-semester scholarship to a Virginia university. Hofschneider captures perfectly the culture shock experienced by the young man upon his arrival in a small college community in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.
Not long after his arrival he encounters Givens’ April, a schoolteacher who also works as a cleaning woman for one of Philippe’s professors. Their mutual attraction is instant, and why not? Both are exceptionally attractive and bright individuals. But it’s 1956, the South, and the very notion of an interracial romance is fraught with peril. Still, Philippe is the only white man who has ever looked April straight in the eye, and April is not only beautiful but as lonely as Philippe--it’s not likely that April has any friends trying, as she is, to learn French via a correspondence course.
Adapted by Menno Meyjes (who also wrote the script for “The Color Purple”) from Philippe Labro’s autobiographical novel, the film is best and strongest when it sticks to Philippe and April, whose romance develops with credibility and tenderness. From his sophisticated world of Paris, Philippe is baffled by naked racism and segregation while April is at once intrigued and wary of this very different kind of white man. Director Eva Sereny does capture the aura of danger confronting the couple--anyone who attended a college within a stone’s throw of the Mason-Dixon Line in the ‘50s could tell you how daring and risky their affair is.
When the film moves away from the lovers by themselves, “Foreign Student” becomes decidedly uneven. Rick Johnson is outstanding as Philippe’s pal, a guy who fits the Golden Boy football star image but is actually a sensitive, caring and courageous individual behind his breezy jock demeanor. There’s also a lovely cameo by Charles Dutton as a blues singer who comes to Philippe’s rescue when the youth dares to go to a blues joint in a black neighborhood, a venue decidedly off-limits to white college boys, and a brief, effective appearance by jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks as April’s father. But Edward Herrmann, so often a fine actor, emerges as a caricature of the tweedy, pipe-smoking professor, and Charlotte Ross, a game young actress, is stuck with what may well be the worst role of 1994: a Bostonian who passes herself off as a Southern belle and then suffers a nervous breakdown when she discovers Philippe has a “black mistress.” (None of this curious behavior is explored.)
In her feature debut, Sereny, a Hungarian-born Englishwoman, displays more sincerity than style, and she has a hard time imposing any kind of firm shape or form upon her material. Not helping matters are the film’s syrupy score, banal theme song and unctuous soundtrack narration.
* MPAA rating: R, for language and some sexuality . Times guidelines: Its story and serious treatment of interracial theme is appropriate for mature young people .
Robin Givens: April
Marco Hofschneider: Philippe
Rick Johnson: Cal
Charlotte Ross: Sue Ann
A Gramercy Pictures presentation of a Silvio Berlusconi Communications/Carthago Films production. Director Eva Sereny. Producers Tarak Ben Amar, Mark Lombardo. Executive producers Tarak Ben Amar, Mark Lombardo, Peter Hoffman. Screenplay by Menno Meyjes; based on the novel by Philippe Labro. Cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo. Editor Peter Hollywood. Costumes Carol Ramsey. Music Jean-Claude Petit. Production designer Howard Cummings. Art director Jeffrey McDonald. Set decorator Jeanette Scott. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.