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Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2005
Froth for your upper lip
By KAORI SHOJI
In an age when the unbearable lightness of the weight-conscious dinner is followed by the ever-shrinking dessert, "Pas sur la bouche (Not on the Mouth)" is a sinful treat that hits the palate like a rich gateau au chocolat. Not one of those namby-pamby nouvelle cuisine items, but a rich, gooey monstrosity made from one of those antiquated recipes that require 16 eggs and enough cream and sugar to sink a tanker. The word "decadent" hardly begins to describe it. The only sensible thing is to forget what damage it could do and immerse yourself in its frothy pleasures.
"Pas sur la bouche" is based on the 1925 operetta by Andre Barde (same title). Now, 80 years later, director Alain Resnais keeps its spirit and elegant, prewar ambience intact -- in fact there seems to be very little in either the dialogue or the musical numbers that was changed at all. Used as we are to snappy dialogue and events that unfold at the speed of light, "Pas sur la bouche" can feel a little too stagey, manicured and slow. It takes more than an hour until someone finally engineers a single kiss. Until then the singing and talking is all of love and carnal pleasures but when it comes to putting the lyrics in action, restraint rules.
Hints and suggestions of sex are always in the air without the pressure of having to act upon them and this only strengthens the undercurrent of naughtiness. You can tell seduction was a big game among the Parisian upperclass, one played in low-cut sequined gowns and immaculate tuxedos and through the most comically passionate dialogue. Admittedly, the whole package is an acquired taste but, oh, the charm of it all.
"Pas sur la bouche" is also infused with satire and makes little digs at the upperclass French and the American wealthy with sugar-coated venom. The story revolves around the fortyish, flirtatious Madame Gilberte Valandray (Sabine Azema), whose long and stable marriage to an adoring business tycoon hasn't dampened her ardor for the sport of luring and discarding admirers. Gilberte's sister Arlette (Isabelle Nanty from "Amelie") hasn't had such luck -- in her mid-30s she's still a spinster and relegated to the role of carrying love messages between their friends.
One of them is Huguette (Audrey Tautou, "Amelie"), who is secretly pursuing emerging young artist Charley (Jalil Lespert) who, in turn, is head over heels in love with Mme. Gilberte. Also stalking this older coquette is Faradel (Daniel Prevost), who has expressed his devotion for so long he's become the family joke. Despite Gilberte's obvious popularity, husband Georges (Pierre Arditi) complacently thinks she will never be unfaithful: He holds that a woman will never leave the "first" man who shared her bed.
What he doesn't know is that his wife had been married before, to a Chicago businessman by the name of Eric Thomson (Lambert Wilson). And it turns out that Eric has become a potential business partner of Georges and from now on, he'll be coming to the house quite often. Naturally, Gilberte is all sighs and French distress. Eric is the typical straight-faced American who doesn't understand the fine art of flirting, and with his Yankified French accent, he goes about winning back Gilberte with all the subtlety of a buzz saw. Enlisting the help of Arlette, she tries to discourage Eric from making any more advances (or spilling the beans to Georges) by pretending to have a passionate liaison with upcoming artist Charley.
The outcomes of these various entanglements are not as amusing as the portrayal of upperclass French lifestyle complemented by a spectacularly elegant wardrobe; their Anglophile insistence on taking afternoon tea in a "drawing room" full of plush, overstuffed little chairs; their love of hatching little schemes and intrigues over champagne and cigarettes. Above all, the neverending conversations and observations about l'amour, toujours l'amour!
Things turn rather outrageous during the last half hour when the scene shifts from the Valandray house to Faradel's over-decorated bachelor pad where a nosy landlady (played with off-the-chart campiness by Darry Coul) spies on the various couples through a keyhole. When Charley, stood up by Gilberte, changes course and comes on to Huguette, the landlady peers away and then remarks with sincere concern: "You can tell the girl is a virgin. That means the man has to take the lead all the way. Oh dear, what a lot of work."
The title refers to the American Eric's refusal to kiss a woman due to his conviction that "kissing breeds germs." Somehow, this makes him extremely alluring to all the young women that frequent the Valandray household and his finest moment comes when he sings the title song, eyeing with utter disgust the many lipsticked mouths puckering up at him. All this fuss and importance attached to kissing -- but then, the French claim to have invented it.