"Foreign Student" could have been a sweet, little film about a period in this country's history at once more innocent and terrible than the current one. It collapses because of the inexperience of its foreign-born director, Eva Sereny, who neither sees Americans as real human beings nor understands the social context in which they lived almost 40 years ago.
Menno Meyjes' screenplay is fashioned from Philippe Labro's autobiographical novel, "The Foreign Student," in which 18-year-old Frenchman Philippe LeClerc is invited to spend the fall semester as an exchange student at a tony college in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. The year is 1956, only a year after Rosa Parks' act of civil disobedience had set off the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.
The impressionable and romantic Philippe (Marco Hofschneider) is already infatuated with the books of such uniquely American writers as J. D. Salinger and Raymond Chandler. He further signals his sensitivity to American culture by falling in love with the blues -- one of the great indigenous American art forms created by mostly disenfranchised African-Americans. Like many educated Frenchmen of his time, he cannot understand America's obsession with race (he should only see us now!) and why whites oppress blacks.
As an outsider, it is inevitable that he falls in love with another: the beautiful, intelligent and well-read April (Robin Givens), who cleans house for the wife of one of Philippe's professors but who aspires to become a teacher. Although April returns his affections, such a love affair had to be hidden in the rural Virginia of 40 years ago. But Philippe has enough innocence and goodness to make a colorblind relationship seem possible. The story's muted, poignant ending never negates that possibility.
This tender material is badly handled by its Hungarian-born, English-educated director. Sereny's background has been almost entirely confined to photography for fashion magazines and advertising, and she certainly knows how to make things look beautiful. In the America that Philippe sees for the first time, the mountains are strikingly verdant, the towns are prosperous, and the people look like healthy, well-fed giants.
It is America seen through the eyes of someone who has just arrived from the depressingly drab Europe created by World War II. Unfortunately, Sereny's gifts are not yet cinematic; her characters and her narrative have all the flatness of a photograph.
The segregated society that the lovers defy remains as undecipherable to us as to Philippe. It doesn't help that the film's establishment figures -- the college's professors and students -- are presented as either uniformly nasty or uncomprehending. Because we don't know where they come from, we don't know what Philippe and April are up against. What is worse, we don't care.
Hofschneider -- affecting as the Jewish teen-ager who survives the Holocaust by pretending to be a Nazi in "Europa, Europa" -- struggles to bring Philippe to life but fails to make him much more than a paper-thin Candide. The glamorous Givens -- whose April seems like a Sarah Lawrence girl slumming -- never convinces us of her character's beauty of soul.
Only Rick Johnson (as Philippe's football-playing best friend) and Charlotte Ross (as the sexy, ditzy Southern belle who turns out to be not what she seems) manage to inject this film with occasional life. Charles S. Dutton and Hinton Battle turn up in bit parts as legends-to-be bluesmen Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. But their pro forma appearance at a backwoods roadhouse -- and Philippe's appreciation of them -- serves only as an annoyingly gratuitous affirmation of the enlightened values that cannot keep "Foreign Student" from foundering in the dark.
Starring Robin Givens and Marco Hofschneider
Directed by Eva Sereny
Released by Gramercy