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Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2005

Some boys don't make it to men

Clara et Moi

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Arnaud Viard
Running time: 90 minutes
Language: French
Opens Aug. 27
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Mae West once said: "Men are little boys," which, when you come to think about it, is the definitive male characterization in (Western) cinema. From Charlie Chaplin to James Stewart to Woody Allen to Brad Pitt, it seems like all their leading ladies have, at some point, commented in varying degrees of frustration as well as affection, on just how little-boyish they are. Agreed, men are little boys. So what else is new?

News photo
Julie Gayet (left) and Julien Boisselier in "Clara et Moi"

A wry French love story called "Clara et Moi" retells the tale, in such a way that the scales drop anew from collective female eyes. Directed by Arnaud Viard, "Clara et Moi" (titled "Metro de Koishite" in Japan) lays bare the mental/spiritual age gap between men and women while discussing the very modern difficulty of making love last beyond the first passionate few months.

Back when Mae West was making movies, screen couples stayed together for as long as five years and it usually took about three dates before the first kiss. Now, of course, instant gratification is followed by instant matrimony or instant relationship-destruction, whichever comes first, and though I'm not saying it's always the guy's fault, it does seem like the male attention span and what my girlfriends call P.T.C. (Power to Commit) have sadly diminished.

"Clara et Moi" highlights both symptoms with taste and insight, and believe me, the screening room (where girls in the audience outnumbered the guys by 9:1) erupted more than once in sardonic chuckles and much vigorous head-nodding. Oh, it all rang so true. And don't be fooled by the title: The "Moi" in "Clara et Moi" should be capitalized and bolded for all the importance he (i.e. the male lead) gives it. Hah!

In the beginning, however, this "moi" -- a Parisian comedian by the name of Antoine (Julien Boisselier) -- is sort of cute. Tall and muscular with the kind, open face of a puppy, Antoine is surrounded by friends and not surprisingly has a few secret lady admirers. But Antoine is inclined to whine because at age 32 he can't find the love of his life. He even visits a psychiatrist for advice (the way he states his case, it's almost as if he expects the doctor to wrap him in a blanket and offer hot chocolate) but the doc politely charges him 50 euros and shows him the door.

And then one day it's as if an angel drops from the sky and lands in the metro just when Antoine's riding it. The moment he sets eyes on Clara (Julie Gayet), Antoine is transfixed (as will the audience be) and he goes through this cute routine of writing down "will you have a drink with me?" in his notebook and giving her three choices for replies, which is a strategy copped from Bruce Willis in "The Story of Us," but never mind: The point is, Antoine is at his most endearing and cuddly, and, sure enough, Clara gives him her number before getting off. Their first date is embarrassingly sweet, even featuring one unbearable moment in which the pair break into song as if in a musical. Antoine can't believe his good fortune: Here at last is the woman of his dreams and to cap it off she's wearing a slinky halter top and no bra.

The first couple of weeks pass by in a delirium of passion and romantic dinners and then, of course, the pair begin to experience the inevitable little bumps. He doesn't like it that the fiction of choice of Clara (an aspiring novelist who makes her living as a bar hostess on the TGV, the French equivalent of the Shinkansen) leans toward the sugary and sentimental, and he also seethes with jealousy when she moonlights for a prerecorded phone-sex service ("But I need the money" she tells him. "Why? I'm paying for all our dinners!" he rages). Clara on the other hand, hides whatever disappointments she may feel about how he pouts like a 9 year old, or how he's still holding a grudge against his father for not giving full support when Antoine decided to become a comedian. Clara is an angelic listener, remaining cheerful, positive and (most importantly) beautiful throughout -- until one day they both take AIDS tests in preparation for marriage and she comes out positive.

The events that follow highlight Antoine for what he is: an egotistical knucklehead sorely lacking in sympathy skills. When Clara tries to tell him how sad and depressed she's been he cuts her short and enthuses about a part he got in a play starring Fanny Ardant. They argue, he stops calling, and Clara disappears from his life. When, finally, he gets up the courage to go and visit her it has been more than a year since their first meeting. What did he think, that she was going to be there waiting for him?

"Clara et Moi" may not be a masterpiece but it sure sets off discussions about gender, love, and relationships. Speaking of which, if this is a correct sampling of couple-dom in the City of Love that is Paris, then we, in this intensely unromantic archipelago governed by excessive work ethics, may as well roll over and give up. There's just no hope for us.

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