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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Love still drug of choice in France



Ils se marierent et eurent beaucoup d'enfant

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Yvan Attal
Running time: 104 minutes
Language: French
Opens April 2
[See Japan Times movie listings]

In the world of French cinema, some films are so much Frenchier than others. Take "Ils se marierent et eurent beaucoup d'enfants (They Got Married and Had Many Children)" as a perfect example. On a Frenchiness scale of one to 10, the works of Francois Ozon for example, come up to about cinq whereas this particular film is a resounding dix. If a space alien were to drop in and ask what the French state-of-being is all about, he should sit down and watch this movie immediately.

News photo
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Yvan Attal in "Ils se marierent et eurent beaucoup d'enfants" (C)2004. HIRSCH PATHE RENN PRODUCTION-TF1 FILM PRODUCTION

Directed by Yvan Attal and starring himself, his wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and their son, Ben, this film is quite une affair de famille. Attal plays protagonist Vincent; he's married to Gabrielle (Gainsbourg) and they have one son, Joseph (Ben Attal) -- which means that their real-life life carries over to the screen, where it ostensibly switches to fiction. One can't help speculating when or where reality ends and fantasy begins, and how fuzzy the boundaries are. (Maybe this is what Sartre meant by existentialism.) Certainly their performances show they care less about protecting their privacy than other husband-wife pairings (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in "Eyes Wide Shut" come readily to mind). But then Godard did say that moviemaking is, and should be, intensely personal. So again, it's probably a French thing.

In any case, Attal as Vincent is so natural he doesn't even seem to be working. Handsome, boyish and still enormously in love with his wife, Vincent likes to take Gabrielle dancing on Saturday nights to noisy clubs where he can savor the little drama of her flirting with love-struck admirers, only to then whisk her off and make out in their car. Gabrielle is rail thin (ah, the French paradox at work) and nonchalantly beautiful, their son is cute and their Parisian apartment is tastefully Bohemian. But in spite of all this, Vincent's in the middle of a torrid affair with a masseuse (Angie David) and is quite adept at saying "je t'aime" to both women, within seconds of two consecutive cell-phone conversations.

Gabrielle knows about it, but refrains from such un-chic courses of action as outright confrontation or sleuthing the identity of L'Autre Femme. Instead, she has a fantastically messy pillow fight with her husband followed by a session of tender love-making and then she quietly packs a tiny black bikini in a little suitcase and announces her intention of taking a vacation with their son. ("I need to go where there's sunshine," she sighs.) How utterly civilized. How deeply French.

Or maybe this is the ultimate French male fantasy of how a wife should behave in the face of infidelity. Let's face it: Frenchmen -- long spoiled by living in a nation of women who are metaphors for style and desirability -- are often, well, just plain spoiled. According to them (and Vincent too, though he never says it outright) it's just not enough for women to have beauty and be good sports they must have that je ne sais quois factor in abundance as well or the guys go and look for it somewhere else. Merde.

Still, Vincent is slightly uneasy about Gabrielle for she, too, could be betraying him. Certainly she has her own pleasures and outlets unknown to her husband, like a chance encounter with a gorgeous stranger (Johnny Depp!) in a record store. And though it's nothing more than a brief conversation, the moment stays with her and nourishes her. As a Frenchwoman for whom the state of love is a birthright, she knows that the mere hint of an affair often does much more to enhance her allure than doing the actual thing.

Whether this ploy works on Vincent will remain unsaid. But it's clear Attal is fascinated by what his wife is doing with the material here, and traces her movements like a dedicated draughtsman, alert even to the fluttering of her delicate fingers. In one scene, Vincent talks about the day he first fell for Gabrielle: They were strangers at a party and he was mesmerized by the long nape of her neck and the way she held her cigarette.

Attal's lens is constantly lingering on these two things and let it be noted that Charlotte Gainsbourg is probably the last remaining actress in the Western world who can make smoking look so absolutely attractive. In her fingers a cigarette sheds all other subtexts (you know, all that stuff about the surgeon general's warning) and becomes the ultimate accessory that speaks for her moods and complements her reticent, mysterious persona. The Gainsbourg DNA remains fully intact; her father Serge died of a heart attack but he was carted off to the hospital still holding one of his trademark Gitanes.

In the end, Vincent (or maybe Attal himself) sports an old-fashioned view of marriage that belies his bad-boy attitude. In a little speech to his friends, Vincent praises marriage, holding up his parents (played by Anouk Aimee and Claude Berri), married for 40 years and able to have an elegant, companionable dinner in total silence -- as the ultimate example. "It [marriage] can work and it can also last," he says with conviction. OK, but should we take a Frenchman's word for it?



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