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A musical drawing room farce set in Paris in October, 1925. Gilberte, in middle-age, flirts with men but loves her husband Georges, wishing he were more demonstrative. He's negotiating a deal with an American, Eric Thomson, who turns out to be Gilberte's first husband from an annulled and secret stateside marriage. Along with her sister Arlette, Gilberte begs Eric not to tell Georges about the marriage. Meanwhile, a young artist, Charly, pursues Gilberte while Arlette tries to match him with the young Huguette, who loves him. Will Eric play along or try to re-win Gilberte's affection? Can Gilberte play one off against another? And who will manage to kiss whom on the lips? Written by
The trailer was sophisticatedly blasé suggesting that Alain Resnais had cast Audrey (Amélie) Tautou to target the American market, and that lantern-jawed Jalil Lespert would add to the film's swoon factor. So, expecting a saccharin romcom I had failed to do my homework on Google and I woke up three minutes into the film to a startling revelation.
'It's an operetta! No one told me!'
In our thrillseeking contemporary culture accelerated by Karen O's screams and the mentholated bandwidth of broadband wifi, people could question the 2-hour time investment required to watch a bigscreen adaptation of an obscure French-language three-act operetta which was first performed in 1925. Especially one which glorifies the frivolity of the Parisian jetset via music and rhyme, replaces location shots with deliberately stagey sets, and conceals a skeletal plot under the billowing skirts of witty ditties and fully-orchestrated vignettes.
The core tune, 'Pas Sur La Bouche', is typical of the film as a whole. It recounts how Eric Thomson (Lambert Wilson), a 'pudibond' (prudish) American businessmen, is too pent up to kiss girls on the lips. Four nubile sirens entreaty the fleeing entrepreneur for a covert snog, and through basic studio boomwork we are subjected to half-length shots of turgid choreography as the frigid, bespectacled yank retreats up the successive tiers of a grandstand. Does Mr Thomson suddenly succumb to the onslaught, staging an impromptu gangbang with the four nymphettes and confessing his concupiscence to a nearby priest? Of course not. It's 1925. Eric Thomson has never heard of Viagra. This is an operetta.
Which is fine if you're about 115 years old and you're into the genre. 'Pas Sur La Bouche' certainly seemed like a jolly, nostalgic outing for its dapper actors especially the slinky, hammy Sabine Azéma and the neurotic, unkempt Isabelle Nanty. Wouldn't we all leap at the chance to get dolled up in chintzy art deco garb and to dish up outmoded verbal conceits - in song - to the cinemagoing masses?
The plot is the kind of open-door/close-door farce that works well in theatre. Wealthy Socialite Gilberte (Azéma) hides her former marriage from Magnate husband Valandray (Pierre Arditi). Socialite flirts with Beau (Jalil Lespert), a struggling artist. Beau is courted by Belle (Audrey Tautou) yet he prefers Socialite. Belle confides in Socialite's Spinster sister (Isabelle Nanty), who assumes the role of matchmaker. Socialite's American ex-husband (Lambert Wilson) returns to buy Magnate's business. High jinks ensue. After much silliness all ends well.
So far, so Molière. The songs (by librettist André Bardé and Maurice Yvain, the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber of their day) are jaunty and innocuous. They offer plenty of scope for the sort of theatrical winks and to-camera headtwists occasionally glimpsed in Abba videos. The standout tracklist below - with rhyming summaries to replace what can only be approximate subtitles - is an appeal to a less faithful rendering of the vaudeville format in future.
-Rich girls detail their passions for retail, fashions
-Subplot rake is overt about his chasing of skirt
-Magnate lets rip with his pet discourse: that devil, divorce.
"Comme j'aimerais mon mari"
-Socialite lauds the botox invigoration of toyboy flirtation
-Reveals her projection of six-packed ab onto spouse's flab
"Gilberte et Valandray"
-Socialite and Magnate engage in kitchen cajoling during lobster-boiling
-A warbled feuilleton about riches, kisses, dresses, bouillon
"Quand On N'a Pas Ce Que L'on Aime"
-Wallflowers debunk the inconstancy of hunks
-Hearts flutter, lips quiver, Spinster splutters, Belle shivers
"Pas Sur La Bouche"
-Stiff, suited yank avoids lolita hanky-pank
"Sur Le Quai Malaquais"
-Beau and Belle muse their future caress at a Seine-side address
-Dénouement will follow, with entire cast in tow
And that's about it. Burst into tears, not song. If you want a timewarp back to lavish musicals about Paris, dust off some old videos of Funny Face or Gigi and tap the heels of your black-and-white correspondent's shoes to Maurice Chevalier's 'Sank 'eavens for lee-toll gulls'. Or at least rent Moulin Rouge. It seems that the octogenarian Alain Resnais took heart from the box office success of 'Huit Femmes', François Ozon's singing, dancing allstar vehicle aimed purely at humiliating France's bouffoned-and-tucked grandes actrices. And what with the cinematic euros pouring into musicals of late - Topsy Turvy, Moulin Rouge, Chicago surely this operetta would provide succour to French audiences sickened by the rewind rape scenes of 'Irreversible' or the porno violence of 'Baise-Moi'? With that bobbed actress out of Amélie, it might even have turned a profit.
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