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'Foreign Student'

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 29, 1994


Eva Sereny
Marco Hofschneider;
Robin Givens;
Charles S. Dutton;
Hinton Battle;
Edward Herrmann;
Rick Johnson;
Charlotte Ross
Under 17 restricted

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Eva Sereny's "Foreign Student" is one of those movies that take a golden, gentle look at the '50s. This particular take on that era has been unfashionable in America for years; "Foreign Student" is based on a 1956 autobiographical novel by Philippe Labro about his scholarship semester at a small liberal arts college in the Shenandoah Valley.

Small and wide-eyed Phillippe (Marco Hofschneider) is an innocent abroad, arriving in the green and leafy Virginia countryside knowing nothing about the culture he is entering. Believing American football to be the same as the French version (i.e., soccer), he soon finds himself smashed in the mud by a burly linebacker. This is played for poignancy and laughs. But things get more serious when race -- in the form of Robin Givens -- enters the picture.

Givens plays April, a domestic worker at the house of one of Phillippe's professors, and when the boy sees her he is smitten bad. Small wonder -- Givens must be the most dynamite-looking woman ever to work as a maid in a small Southern town. Even in her demure dresses, she gives off va-va-voom like a neon sign. In his purity, Phillippe does not understand that his love for her is socially forbidden. The two proceed to have a sweet and sexy babes-in-the-woods tryst, despite April's misgivings, while we in the audience are invited to lament over the cruel social system that dooms such innocence.

There's nothing exactly wrong with this mild social criticism, except that in 1994 it seems willfully naive and a little precious, even self-congratulatory. There's no hint that Phillippe could be indulging in some impure lust for l'exotique, or that April's affection for him might have any nasty elements in it such as race betrayal or personal ambition. Phillippe seeks out the local black music spot and grooves to Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson (a pair of smart cameos by Charles S. Dutton and the Tony winner Hinton Battle); unlike the bland and foolish local whites, the French kid is naturally sophisticated enough to appreciate this "juke joint" music. The black people in the movie exist for no other reason than to make Phillippe look good.

Away from the race issue, the film is more intelligent. Though the story lacks energy -- it meanders past like the Shenandoah -- the milieu is well observed. The small liberal Asheland-Stuart University is essentially a '50s prep school; the characters resemble those in the worlds of Salinger, of Cheever, of Updike, those quintessential chroniclers of the '50s. There's the kindly, autocratic, mysterious, possibly homosexual professor (Edward Herrmann); the golden boy jock whose life is probably going to crash after he leaves school (Rick Johnson); the rich girl headed for a major-league nervous breakdown (Charlotte Ross).

These are types from a vanished time, preserved in the amber of Labro's memory. There's authenticity to this memory; there's just not much force. You sit through the movie without ever having an idea as to why anyone involved felt moved to tell this particular story.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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