Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport and get your shots, because this week we’re heading to…
I’ve always been a sucker for good romantic comedies. The problem these days is that for every Love Actually or Notting Hill there are ten Ugly Truths or Bride Wars. It’s probably one of the trickier film genres to get right because the balance between the romance and the comedy needs to not only be believable, but that balance needs to be just right. That’s not to say there has to be equal parts laughs and plucked heartstrings… just that one can’t come at the expense of the other. Which brings us to a French film that pretty much gets it all right.
Emilie (Julie Gayet) meets Gabriel (Michael Cohen) one afternoon, two strangers in a small town, and they end up spending a platonic day together. They have great chemistry, wonderful conversations, and as the evening winds down Gabriel drops her back at her hotel and leans in for a kiss… which she refuses. It’s the way she stops him though that surprises and delights. She tells him a story about another kiss, one she says should serve as a warning to those who believe there’s any such thing as “a kiss of no consequence.” With a warning that “when the story’s over we won’t meet again” Emilie begins her tale, and the movie moves to a different couple…
Judith (Virginie Ledoyen) is in a happy and loving relationship, but she also has a best friend named Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret) who is not. One day he tells her that his life lacks affection, he’s alone, and like an unreachable splinter in your backside that nags he can’t do anything about it. His eyes get to the point before his words do and we see that he’s basically asking for a quickie. (This man is a genius.) He tells her about his failed attempt at companionship with a prostitute who wouldn’t allow the one element of lovemaking he finds most important… kissing. So Nicolas comes right out with it, Judith catches on, and they begin a hilariously awkward, “one-time only” physical exchange. Except that one time takes on mythical proportions that refuse to leave their thoughts, and the only way to diminish the powerful memory of their tryst is through further, and more intentionally mundane, sex. Of course.
I’ll stop there and let you discover the rest of the story, both stories actually, on your own. Neither relationship follows a predictable or traditional path, and the journey is filled with wonderful asides and even finds time for a character to tell yet another story about a kiss that leads to an unexpected conclusion. Ledoyen and Mouret carry most of the screen time, and they do so with an obvious joy for the material and each other. Mouret also wrote and directed the film (and wisely cast himself as the guy who gets to woo and caress Ledoyen), and his talents here are obvious on all three fronts. Both his acting and directing are playful and casual, but his dialogue is where the film truly shines.
As the two friends move uncontrollably through their affair they give voice to the unspoken feelings and urges within. Judith at one point fears his mouth is too attractive and close and blurts out her concern. “It’s awful,” she says. “I want to kiss you again. When it’s there in front of me, it attracts me.” Nicolas responds with an exasperated “I’m stopping myself giving it to you.” (Spoiler… he gives it to her anyway.) They try in vain to convince themselves that what they’re feeling isn’t love. “In love, there’s consented attraction. You agree to be mutually attracted. We are attracted, but without our mutual consent.” It’s a humorous self-awareness lacking in most characters, and the fact that it’s played for smiles doesn’t diminish the honesty behind the words. “How can one hope for world peace with immoral women like me in it?” Judith wonders, while all the while we secretly wish there were more women like her. (And not just because Ledoyen is still sexy as hell these many years after she left Leonardo DiCaprio on The Beach.) She’s a morally conflicted woman who wants nothing more than to be true to herself and to do so without hurting anyone. It’s a difficult path to walk, and unlike a million romantic comedies where the guy who gets left behind is invariably a deserving prick or a boring dork (see The Baxter) her husband Claudio is neither. It creates an interesting dilemma for Judith and the audience alike.
Shall We Kiss is a sweet, romantic, and light comedy that never quite goes in the direction you expect. “Before a kiss has been given,” Emilie says, “no one knows if it’ll be big or small.” Such sentiments are rare in a genre not known for the greater human truths. And the statement can easily be applied to the genre itself as well. Before a film starts, you never know if a romantic comedy will successfully speak to either your heart or your funny bone. (Well, unless it stars Katherine Heigl of course.) Say yes to Shall We Kiss and I think you’ll find both parts of your anatomy very happy indeed.
The Upside: Story within a story format works very well; an unpredictable romance; sweet, funny, honest, suspenseful (yes, suspenseful)
The Downside: Umm, not enough scenes with a topless Virginie Ledoyen?
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