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Wednesday, April 2, 2003

Too good to be true, can't take my eyes off you

Rue des plaisirs

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Patrice Leconte
Running time: 91 minutes
Language: French
Currently showing

It was Jean-Luc Godard who once said that modern French cinema was all about boys putting their hearts and souls into watching girls. The boys, in this case, were the directors, and the girls were the lead actresses -- seemingly unattainable, poised perfectly at the other end of the camera. According to Godard, all that the boys had to do was watch intently and the girls would be compelled to perform and to mesmerize.

News photo
Patrick Timsit and Laetitisa Casta in "Rue de plaisirs"

This certainly applies to filmmaker Patrice Leconte. Always the intent and soulful watcher, Leconte has told us what it's like to be the ardent admirer ("Monsieur Hier"), the obsessive lover ("Yvonne") and the dreamy, adoring husband of a beautiful wife ("The Hairdresser's Husband"). Typically, the women of Leconte films are scornful, cool or just plain unaware that they excite such towering passion. They attract stares and ensnare hearts with effortless grace. In a Leconte movie, girls are never allowed to do anything so coarse as to shatter illusions, to let real-life concerns intrude, or to even sneeze. It's as if the girls and Leconte have signed an agreement: He'll make sure never to take his eyes off them (for as long as the movie lasts, anyway), and they'll make sure he's never disappointed by what he sees.

The act of watching a loved one is the foremost crucial activity in Leconte's latest "Rue des plaisirs (Love Street)." The boy watches, the girl performs, and he is intoxicated by both his love object and his own intense longing. The casting is perfect: supermodel Laetitia Casta paired with French comedian Patrick Timsit. She's gorgeous beyond words; he's kind of geeky-looking but nice. This is the kind of combination Leconte regularly uses in his movies, and it's probably no coincidence that the director himself is kind of geeky-looking but nice. Casta plays prostitute Marion, new arrival to a glitzy Parisian brothel called Oriental Palace. Timsit has the role of Petit Louis, born and raised in the brothel dressing room and now working as handyman for the girls.

Louis takes one look at Marion and zap, decides to devote the rest of his life to making her happy. This means supporting her career, fetching and carrying, looking out for eligible suitors who will liberate Marion from the business, and generally enslaving himself to her whims. The thought of making Marion his own never crosses Louis' mind. He knows (with the perception of a man who has grown up in the pleasure trade) that he is not the man for her. Marion accepts Louis' devotion and then promptly falls in love with the handsome Dimitri Josco (Vincent Elbaz), who she insists is her Prince Charming. Louis is initially supportive, but Dimitri's underworld connections and fickle temperament start to worry him. Their strange menage a trois also gives rise to Louis' self-doubt and misgivings -- he doesn't expect to become Marion's lover, but at the same time, to lose her to another man is unbearable. Louis fears that this contradiction of his will thwart Marion's chances of finding true love. Unaware of Louis' inner agony, Marion skips around the dressing room and announces blissfully: "Oh Louis, I'm in love!"

Though Marion is always at the center of Louis' world, she's not what anchors the movie. It's Louis who keeps the story moving by being both the adoring caregiver and the narrator, continually tracing out loud the progress of his adoration. Marion is always in his gaze, but at the same time he's working for the ladies at the Oriental (lacing up corsets, brewing tea, dispensing advice), navigating the narrow staircases to deal with any trouble and occasionally looking straight into the camera and throwing a remark at the audience.

Louis has a reality to him that Marion does not -- she begins to seem like a figment of his curious imagination. After all, this is a man who had grown up surrounded by sex and scantily clad women, and whose childhood dream had been to meet that one special girl whom he could spend all his time taking care of. What's missing here is Marion's side of the story: We never really know how she feels about Louis' attention, though she seems incapable of existing without it.

For all Louis' compelling personality, it's not enough to fuel the film all the way through. The film might, on occasion, feel cold and devoid of emotion, but "Rue des plaisirs" does show Leconte moving in a different direction: It's more visually polished than his previous work (though the history is set in 1945, the streamlined sets and clear lighting make the backdrop seem timeless rather than that of a period piece) and has a tortured, complex story (one can't help feeling that if only Louis and Marion cut out the nonsense and slept together, it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble). But a new subtlety has crept into the proceedings, which causes the story to sputter and slow down -- not that a Leconte film ever cruised the fast lane.

Perhaps because Leconte is basing his story in a brothel, crammed with more lingerie than Frederick's of Hollywood, his concern for discretion has become somewhat excessive. And strangely enough, Marion, for all her devastating looks, doesn't seem sexy or passionate. She says to Louis that sex is just work to her and that sensual pleasures leave her cold: a line that Leconte takes to heart by hardly ever showing Marion "at work," undressed or in the role of seductress.

"Rue des plaisirs" is neither original nor erotic and just a tad too formulaic. Maybe it's just me, but the message that sex has little to do with romance or love and the ultimate relationship is a platonic one -- feels kind of undernourished.

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