The best fish-out-of-water comedies tend not to take sides; it's all too easy to present a reductive and laughable version of someone else's culture or beliefs, but it takes some daring and some doing to show how people are different without implying that difference is bad. In his nearly letter-perfect adaptation of Amélie Nothomb's based-on-reality novel Fear And Trembling, writer-director Alain Corneau (Tous Les Matins Du Monde) doesn't quite meet the ideal; his sympathies are clear, and his deck is stacked. But by ratcheting up the tension and letting stellar performances and a brutal story do the work, he ends up with a feverishly compelling film that doesn't force-feed its ideals to its audience.
Sylvie Testud stars as Fear And Trembling's Nothomb stand-in, a criminally naïve Belgian girl fulfilling her dreams by beginning a job in Tokyo. Having spent her early childhood in Japan, she's dying to return, but she apparently never bothered to study the culture while she was studying the language. Hired as a translator for an immense Japanese corporation, she makes a bad impression on her first day, beginning a cataclysmic slide into professional oblivion. Unable to learn the Japanese ideal of quiet, respectful conformity, she compounds and repeats every error, until what begins as lively comedy instead approaches psychological horror. Most of Testud's mistakesjudging people primarily by appearances, daydreaming instead of working, botching even the simplest tasks, defying and insulting her bosses, arbitrarily hijacking other people's jobs, whining to people she barely knows, and generally wallowing in self-pitywould be catastrophic in any corporate culture. Still, Corneau balances the blame by making her co-workers almost cartoonishly aggressive, and by acknowledging the prejudices and personal frustrations that shape their reactions.
In an alternately aggrieved and loopy performance, Testud accomplishes the impossible by earning horrified sympathy instead of horrified derision. She beautifully captures the terror of an immature, inexperienced girl watching her fantasies fall apart, and her desperation is poignant even when her behavior is inexplicable. Her Japanese co-stars have less room to maneuver; they're often more like the cross on which she's crucifying herself than like living, breathing people. But their consternation comes across as clearly as their variously expressed loathing. In the end, it's unclear who among Fear And Trembling's principals most deserves sympathy, if any of them do. Culture wars don't always have a winner, but it takes a rare film to admit it.