xpress, not repress. Express, not repress.” So goes the therapeutic maxim that Kate (Meg Ryan), the thoroughly neurotic American heroine of Lawrence Kasdan’s French Kiss, adopts as a mantra.
But why read self-help books when you can simply travel to France? The French, after all, are as gloriously expressive as Americans are hopelessly repressed. Or at least that’s the premise of Kasdan’s extraordinarily conventional romantic comedy. Kate’s program of Gallic therapy begins when she’s seated next to Luc (Kevin Kline), a capricious Frenchman, on a trans-Atlantic flight to Paris, where she’s headed to win back the fiancé who left her for another woman.
The proximity of opposites is probably the most overworked comedic staple in show business. Few circumstances are so often called upon to provoke hilarity, and with obvious exceptions, like gender, few markers for difference are as functional—or as hackneyed—as the designation of nationality.
The comic juxtaposition of national character is also the basis for Christopher Monger’s excruciatingly precious The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill, But Came Down a Mountain. In this case, a surveying project takes cartographer Reginald Anson (Hugh Grant), the film’s titular Englishman, to the remote Welsh town of Ffynnon Garw. “It’s only Wales,” Anson remarks to his disgruntled English colleague, who snaps, “It’s still foreign!”
Kiss and Mountain each strain to sell insubstantial scripts for far more than they’re worth—it’s probably no coincidence that both films are star vehicles whose leads unabashedly reprise the roles for which they’ve become famous. (The tag-lines write themselves: “If you like Hugh Grant, you’ll love….”) Grant (Sirens, Four Weddings and a Funeral) is as charmingly abstracted as ever, while Ryan’s prissy histrionics (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle) are surely second nature by now. As if the connection were in doubt, Kiss even includes a segment (unfortunately, it involves the gastrointestinal consequences of lactose intolerance) that mirrors Harry‘s notorious deli scene. Clearly, someone somewhere has concluded that Ryan’s groaning is a bankable commodity.
Of course, the primary problem with ethnic witticisms is that they’re not funny. Kiss, scripted by Adam Brooks, hits the bottom of the barrel almost immediately, cracking jokes about Luc’s accent (Him: “Bub.” Her: “You mean “Bob’?”) and Kate’s belligerent use of Franglais (“Donnez-moi un break!”). Mountain‘s methodology is a bit more artful, but no easier to bear. Director Monger penned the sentimental script, which perpetually invokes the quaintness of Welsh custom. Its impossibly cute opening sequence, for instance, combines narration and sight gags to explain the Welsh tradition of differentiating between like-surnamed townsfolk by appending identifying suffixes to their names: Evans the Cabbage, Davies the Bottle, Morgan the Goat, and so on. Both Mountain and Kiss contain dialogue that serves little purpose save underscoring already conspicuous themes. “Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered anywhere else, but this was Wales,” intones the former’s narrator, while a concierge in the latter reminds Kate that “France is not a nation of puritanical hypocrites!”
Kiss is an amazingly comprehensive compendium of romantic comedy clichés. Kate and Luc are the classically mismatched couple whose bickering invariably masks attraction; within minutes, he’s got her pegged as a goody-two-shoes and she’s got him pegged as a libertine. Later, though, Kate is beguiled by Luc’s soliloquy on the tao of wine. After all, he’s French. (And, as luck would have it, Luc is the man who can unleash Kate’s carefully hidden spontaneous side. At the movies, if not in life, neurotic women always turn out to have a carefully hidden spontaneous side. God forbid anybody be just plain neurotic.)
The film’s list of eminently predictable developments is a long one. The “other woman” proves to be a leggy brunette with an all-minidress wardrobe; Luc’s extended family is introduced in a rustic tableau seemingly lifted from the pages of A Year in Provence; and Kate’s burgeoning attraction to Luc is tested when, sure enough, her nebbishy fiancé finds her feigned disinterest irresistible.
In comparison, Mountain is a film of monumental complexity. (By this I mean that there is a discernible difference between seeing the trailer and seeing the film itself.) Monger’s tale is set in 1917 and, at those moments when it rises above its own tourist-bureau sensibilities, it’s a reasonably effective parable about war and loss. Anson and his companion have come to Ffynnon Garw to determine the altitude of a local mountain for the country’s official ordinance map. Upon measuring it, the Englishmen find that it’s 18 feet too short to qualify as a mountain, and must thenceforth be designated a hill. Outraged, the townspeople stall the cartographers, resolving to add the missing height to the hilltop themselves. The town’s population, of course, is comprised of those who were left behind when their loved ones went to war, and Mountain‘s suggestion that their determination results from the will to memorialize is not without emotional resonance. The film’s megadosage of sentimentality, however, is sufficient to subvert its serious intent.
And both films, in the end, share the same spurious message: Happy people (specifically, those who live in foreign countries) are engaged in the wholesome business of living rather than reading about it or measuring it.