The Venus Beauty Institute is a Parisian salon frequented by women (and the occasional man) seeking to prolong their attractiveness. The crucial word in the title of director and co-writer Tonie Marshall’s fifth film, however, is not “Beauty” but “Venus.” The parlor is a temple of love, owned by the imperious Nadine (Bulle Ogier) but spiritually administered by querulous middle-aged sensualist Angèle (Nathalie Baye).
In the opening scene of this comedya commercial smash and big award-winner in Francethe camera contemplates the day spa, whose blatantly artificial shades of pink and aqua suggest the set for a ’50s women’s picture (or one of Fassbinder’s later movies). Then the camera pulls back to reveal that it’s just another shop on an average Paris street. The suggestion is that Venus Beauty Institute is the tale of a refuge, even a wonderland.
Marshall seems to lose interest in this premise, however, and before long Angèle is gossiping with co-workers Samantha (Mathilde Seigner) and Marie (Audrey Tautou) about disgusting clients; Nadine even joins in with a tale of a particularly smelly one. Although the salon’s patrons include some distinctively Gallic figuresincluding directors Claire Denis and Brigitte Roüan, Rohmer regular Marie Rivière, and a tanning enthusiast who likes to walk naked through the glass-fronted salonit’s no utopia. In fact, the ugliness of romance soon arrives in the form of Antoine (Samuel Le Bihan), a sculptor who develops a fixation on Angèle.
In the United States, there’s a word for this kind of guy: stalker. But then again, Antoine fell madly for Angèle while watching her behave badly in a train station cafe: Dumped by a casual lover, Angèle chased the man down the platform, announcing that she would stalk him. Although the 40-something beautician professes to prefer no-strings sexBaye is, in fact, playing a more complicated version of her character in An Affair of Loveshe’s still outraged when spurned. “Love makes me sick and mean,” she protests to Antoine; she’d rather pick up a married man in a local cafeteria for a quick fling in a car. (The movie doesn’t reveal the logistics of such escapades, which would be interesting; French cars are small.)
While Antoine follows Angèleand his wounded young fiancée follows himthe salon’s youngest employee, Marie, is courted by a retired pilot (’50s French gangster-flick star Robert Hossein). Angèle is so convinced that the older man will seduce and abandon her innocent co-worker that she stalks them, too. Then she’s off to counsel a friend who has just discovered her husband’s extramarital-sex diary, console Samantha after her drastic response to Christmastime depression, and spend Christmas Eve with her lonely aunts, who offer a glimpse of an earlier generation’s version of spinsterhood. Angèle and Antoine bicker, embrace, and bicker again, all with a lack of chemistry that guarantees that their final onscreen moment will seem as arbitrary as the conclusion of any recent romantic comedy in which the lovers speak English.
Most of these developments don’t exactly fit a pink-and-aqua color scheme. Although Venus Beauty Institute abruptly concludes with something that resembles a happy ending, its overall mood is dark. Far from being a haven, the salon ends up seeming rather creepy. All kinds of desperation are covered up with lipstick and powder: One woman comes in for a massage and tells Angèle she wants to die; another complains that her lover will bankroll her trips to the beautician but won’t buy her the clothing she actually needs.
The spa’s hold over the older women borders on the tyrannical. If the film is prepared to build a romance around the 52-year-old Bayesomething that would never happen in Hollywoodit is nonetheless pitiless in its evaluation of physical flaws. Everyone here (except Marie and Antoine’s spurned fiancée, both identified as under 21) needs a makeover: Antoine must shave off his beard before he becomes an acceptable suitor, and Angèle’s former amour Jacquesthe man who soured her on loveis forever stigmatized by facial scars (a love-related injury, of course). Strangest of all is the ex-pilot who starts coming to the salon because he was once burned and wants to preserve the skin that was grafted onto his face afterward: It came from the thighs of his wife, who is now dead. As with much of Venus Beauty Institute, it’s hard to tell where the satire ends and the genuine fetishism begins.
It’s the goddamn ’50s again, and yet another smarmy young teenage boy is out to unlock the mysteries of sex. Almost-14-year-old Lenny (Ryan Merriman) has decided that he’s going to observe a couple screwing before the summer is over and is so keen on the project that he’s willing to start with his mother (Patti LuPone) in bed with the fat new stepfather whom he hates (Rich Licata), a Bronx kosher butcher. Then mom packs her son off to the countryQueensto stay with her sister, Norma (Ilana Levine), and Norma’s new husband, Phil (Peter Onorati), a randy Italian-American grocer. Norma’s too pregnant for sex, so Lenny decides to peep on the couple’s amiable neighbor Hedy (Gretchen Mol), a pretty nurse and part-time lingerie model who’s the neighborhood’s leading erotic icon. Even after Lenny becomes friendly with Hedy, the little creep slips into a closet so he can watch her in bed with her boyfriend.
This premise has the potential to get quite nasty, but instead Just Looking goes, uh, soft. The semi-autobiographical creation of ad-man-turned-sitcom-writer-producer Marshall Karp, Lenny has many life lessons to learn, and in the process, the movie shifts from Woody Allen-ish nostalgic satire to generic heartwarming nostalgic dramedy. In Queens, Lenny joins a teenage “sex club” whose precocious but virginal leader, Alice (Amy Braverman), teaches him much about the subject. He also bonds with Hedy over watered-down beer, comforting her after she breaks up with her boyfriend and learning that she, too, has stepfather problems. Lenny is in for a few shocks, but it turns out that everyone really likes and wants to help himwhich undermines the drama just a bit.
Blandly directed by ex-Seinfelder Jason Alexander, Just Looking features the usual horny-boy fantasy sequences. Lenny imagines various women in their underwearwhich may reflect on his limited carnal imaginationor just the film’s sitcom roots. In the movie’s least urbane moment, Lenny rushes from the bathroom without fastening his jeans to say hello to Hedy, who drives off to leave him standing in the middle of the street with his pants around his ankles. Whatever symbolism was intended, the scene really just demonstrates that sexual coming-of-age flicks set in the ’50s are as archaic as vaudeville. CP