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Friday, June 30, 2006
For a taste of a perfect Paris then pop into your local theater
By KAORI SHOJI
There are French movies and then there are movies like "Un Fil a la Patte (The Art of Breaking Up)," whose French factor is so over-the-top that the smell of croissants seems to waft from the screen. From the very first scenes, director Michel Deville pushes all the buttons -- drenching each and every frame in motifs a la Francais: elegant, three-hour lunches; madeleines arranged on a silver tray; lacy linen handkerchiefs; a boudoir with a color scheme of pinks and greens; golden locks falling ever so artfully over the cheeks of diva Lucette (played by that most fatale of French femme fatales Emmanuelle Beart); and afternoon trysts conducted in the aforementioned boudoir to much appreciative sighs and scuffles. Oh, and corsets accentuating voluptuous curves. Forget about that trip to Paris because here you have an impeccably presented package of everything that, according to Proust, made French life worth living.
The other defining factor of this film is the age thing (as opposed to the youth thing). The French cinema industry, unlike those in the U.S. or East Asia, is extremely open-minded about the maturity of its acting corp. Actresses in their 40s need not appear as long-suffering moms, about-to-be-dumped wives or old girlfriends of 20 years ago, but as genuine, here-and-now objects of love and lust. At 42, Emmanuelle Beart plays such roles (indeed, one can't imagine her in any other), as does Emmanuelle Devos, also in her 40s. The 60-something Jane Birkin, along with Charlotte Rampling, are among the formidable femmes that French directors love to work with, and having reached her late 70s, Jeanne Moreau remains a stolid symbol of sexy independence and attractive decadence. In "Un Fil," the norm applies with a vengeance: With the exception of just one young woman, everyone on the premises is well over 30, displaying the energy levels of teenagers. Witness the 50ish Charles Berling cast as Lucette's lover, (Edouard), who is, um, quite adept at physical exertion any time of day or night with any attractive lady in a 1-meter radius. As a result, what we have here is a raucous, frilly, goo-goo sugary love tale played out by what in other cultures is mercilessly described as the midlife crisis set. Whoever said France was a nation of adults wasn't kidding.
I was so caught up in marveling over the untoned physiques and receding hairlines that I forgot to follow the story, which, compared to this other pastime, seemed almost beside the point. In case you're wondering, however, the backdrop is Paris in the Belle Epoque era, and the centerpiece to this tale is social butterfly/singer Lucette Gaultier, who enjoys favors from a slew of admirers including: an amicable ex-husband (Jacques Bonaffe); a wealthy financier (Tom Novembre); the roguish Irrigua (Stanislas Merhar), who has a penchant for whispering love poems in her ear; and wannabe composer (Patrick Timsit), who has pledged to further her career (and his) with his songs. But Lucette has given her heart to impoverished ne'er-do-well playboy Edouard, who is keeping his recent engagement to a wealthy heiress a secret while helping himself to prebreakup passion in her boudoir. Lucette is not above a few maneuverings herself, and flirts excessively with Irrigua right under Edouard's nose. This, however, is not to get back at his unfaithfulness (she is still ignorant to his engagement at this point) but merely to demonstrate how desirable she is. As she remarks: "Jealousy spices up the sex!"
"Un Fil" was cowritten by one of France's most respected playwrights, Georges Feydeau, but his usual flair and ear for witty dialogue appears too rarely in the film. Instead of a good dose of cynicism, which would have made "Un Fil" much more enjoyable (and to the point), the story is cluttered by sexual allusions and sexual calisthenics, the latter so overdone it strips stars like Beart and Berling of much of their dignity. Berling, especially, has the thankless task of romping across the screen without a stitch in one excruciatingly long take. This is probably perfectly acceptable in the French scheme of things, but for many in the audience it will be hard to muster a reaction beyond "yikes."
Having said so, some of the scenes work well, particularly that between Lucette and Edouard's fiancee, Viviane (Sara Forestier). Not knowing that this is her rival, Lucette coaches the younger woman on the art of seduction simply by unbuttoning the tops of her blouse and arranging the camisole underneath, just so. "A little breathing space is good for everyone" says Lucette, and the awe-struck Viviane gazes back at her, stammering her thanks. Shot outdoors in the luscious countryside, the scene is a subtle and delicate Renoir moment.