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Après Vous… is the kind of farce in which people hide from each other, information is withheld, and silly lies are told. In writer-director Pierre Salvadori’s French confection, the duplicity seldom has to do with matters life-or-death—unless, of course, you’re one of those people for whom romance is a life-or-death matter. In the end, the film is all about love.
And comedy, of course. Luckily, star Daniel Auteuil is charming enough to make all the high jinks bearable. Auteuil plays Antoine, a genial middle-aged waiter who’s more devoted to his job than his girlfriend, Christine (Maryline Canto). When he’s cutting through the park after work one evening, late for yet another date, Antoine is again derailed when he finds a man named Louis (José Garcia) trying to hang himself from a tree. He stops him, naturally—and then brings Louis home, helps him get a job, and tries to reunite him with the woman who broke his heart, a florist named Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain). Christine, obviously, is not pleased.
Co-written by Salvadori, Benoît Graffin, and David Léotard (based on an idea by Danièle Dubroux), the film doesn’t entirely treat Louis’ depression as a joke. His frequent anxiety is both amusing and sympathetic—a scene in which he panics and tries to ditch an interview for a job he’s not qualified for is gut-wrenching—and when he’s really down, both the script and Garcia get it just right. “Even breathing hurts me,” Louis says, getting up from the table when Antoine and Christine’s conversation turns unthinkably polite and pedestrian. For most of the movie, though, Garcia is like a French Tony Shalhoub, both resembling the actor and playing the character’s Monk-like neuroses (he’s afraid, for example, of things hanging above his head) with perfect understatement and comic timing.
Auteuil, however, is the movie’s centerpiece, and his puppyish Antoine is goofy without being dumb and eager to please without seeming pathetic. (Well, at least most of the time—his knee-jerk purchase of another party’s canceled wedding flowers to get on Blanche’s good side is a little ridiculous.) And Salvadori & Co. give him plenty to work with. In one of the most entertaining scenes, Antoine visits Louis’ grandmother to intercept the suicide letter Louis has mailed. Tiny and temporarily blind after a cataract operation, Grandma welcomes Antoine and begs him to read the note that has just been delivered—which he does, only turning statements such as “I want to die” and “I have no friends” into their opposites and further embellishing by saying Louis is dating someone new, a model who’s also studying economics.
At a leisurely 110 minutes, Après Vous… is a bit too much whimsy, further encumbered by a sorta-happily-ever-after resolution that doesn’t make much sense. But these are small drawbacks in a film that manages to achieve the seemingly impossible: It’s a love-conquers-all froth that even a thinking moviegoer can enjoy.
Happily Ever After is also French, and its take on love is, in general, far more cynical. A look at three middle-aged men—two married with children, one a swinging single—writer-director-actor Yvan Attal’s bittersweet comedy examines, as one character tells a philandering friend, “fairy tales you learned when you were a boy.”
Those fairy tales, of course, regard everlasting love, a state that Georges (Alain Chabat) and Vincent (Attal) are starting to doubt they’ve attained. Hotel manager Georges is married to the gorgeous but increasingly combative Nathalie (Emmanuelle Seigner); car salesman Vincent’s seemingly unshakable marriage to Gabrielle (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Attal’s real wife), a real-estate agent, is becoming dulled by routine. When the friends are discussing their predicaments, both sigh with envy as Fred (Alain Cohen), also a salesman, takes calls from the two women he’s scheduled afternoon and evening dates with later.
Attal, whose previous multihyphen effort was 2001’s My Wife Is an Actress (which also co-starred Gainsbourg as his other half), doesn’t present these marrieds as suburban Stepfords. The entire movie has a hip, young feel, thanks to its soundtrack (Radiohead, Velvet Underground), its dryly comic script, and the rock-and-roll attractiveness of the couple it focuses on, Vincent and Gabrielle. Out of all the characters, they seem the least likely to become discontented: The opening scene shows Gabrielle being picked up in a club by a stranger; only later do we find out that the mystery man is her husband. They play other games as well, with Gabrielle being partial to food fights and Vincent forever sneaking up on his wife and son to scare the bejesus out of them. Vincent plays cards with the boys, and Gabrielle spends afternoons record-shopping—in other words, each has a sense of play, respect for the other’s space, and a seemingly still-burning attraction to the other.
It’s a bit of a surprise, then, that it’s their marriage that gets the rockiest. Vincent begins an affair that Gabrielle guesses but doesn’t mention, while she flirts with infidelity as well (in one of the movie’s coolest scenes, a wordless record-store encounter with Johnny Depp, set to “Creep”). When Fred and Georges find out, the script goes further into what’s-it-all-about, with the bachelor admitting his loneliness and Georges becoming more exasperated with his own situation.
Happily Ever After is more realistic than Après Vous…, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s never dreamy. And it’s when things go fanciful that the movie stumbles: Attal incorporates a heartbreaking fantasy sequence so seamlessly into a scene in which Gabrielle is showing an apartment that it seems to be a flashback. And its final scene is flat-out surreal; it would be romantic—if it didn’t involve two previously unmatched characters and raise the question about what exactly Attal is preaching. You won’t necessarily come away from Happily Ever After thinking any of the characters’ choices are better than others. But it will make you feel all their anguish, happiness, emptiness, and passions—and that’s better than any pat agenda.CP