In Sophie Fillières' amiably ditsy but very original comedy Gentille/ Good Girl, Fontaine Leglou (Emmanuelle Devos) is an anesthesiologist in a clinic that administers electroshock treatments, but when we first see her she is stolling on a Paris street and stopping a man she thinks is stalking her and then, when he denies it, inviting him for a drink. Later on her ramble she stops to have her face drawn by a street artist, but breaks off to have a warm conversation with a distinguished-looking man (Dr. Gudarzi -- Michel Vuillermoz, the king's elder son in Palais Royal!)only after a few minutes they realize each has mistaken the other for somebody else.
Fontaine lives with Michel Strogoff, (Bruno Todeschini of Chéreau's powerful Son frère) a scientist specialized in the earth's techtonic crust, who wants to marry her and repeatedly plants a wedding ring where she will find it. She can't accept. She keeps appearing casually nude, once coming out of the shower when she tries on the ring Michel has put, this time, in the soap dish. Later he plants it in the yogurt when they're at his parents and she swallows it. Then when Michel is out of the room his father tells Fontaine a story about how for several years when he and mom had divorced, he freaked out and became an alcoholic bum in the neighborhood unnoticed by the family, successfully pretending he was on a construction project in Costa Rica. The father is played by Michael Lonsdale, and his mother is Bulle Ogier, insuring the parents French cinematic cult status. This "Costa Rica" bum story gives Fontaine and Michel's father a secret together. Another secret she has is she's flirting with several men, notably a patient at the clinic who's a doctor, Philippe (Lambert Wilson), who's under heavy medication and getting shock treatments, but seems if anything saner than most of the staff.
The line between sane and crazy, doctor and patient, faithful and unfaithful, serious and frivolous is constantly broached in Gentille, which seeks to rehabilitate the idea of a well-behaved girl while depicting its heroine's rather irregular lifestyle. Gentille isn't about events so much as it's about surprises, unexpected moments, and conversations. If you're in search of progression or structure this film may disappoint you; but if you're looking for charm, originality, wordplay, you're sure to be delighted. The music is ballet, by Delibes, with a touch of Brahms, and it buoys you up at just the right moments. Fillières' definitely has a voice and outlook of her own. She may not leave you with very much to remember other than some very good time spent with some extremely watchable actors. But isn't that usually enough? This film is the kind that's so close to pure style you may be able to watch it over and over where a more plot-driven movie would go stale, and on repeated viewings you may find meanings and grace notes you missed the first time.
Gentille was created for Emmanuelle Devos. American viewers may remember her as the vulnerable but strong-willed deaf lady who forms a strange liaison with a Vincent Cassel's petty gangster in Jacques Audiard's brilliant Read My Lips/Sur mes lèvres. She's also the main character in Desplechin's wildly inventive movie of last year, Kings and Queen/Rois et reine, has a powerful period role as the titular character of Frédéric Fontaine's La femme de Gilles, and is Niels Arestrup's girlfriend in The Beat My Heart Skipped/De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté (Audiard again, and the Best Film César of 2006). In short, Devos is associated with some of the best of French cinema today. She's a world unto her self, a distinctly French and quite wonderful world. She is beautiful, but she is irregular. Her teeth aren't quite right. Her full lips tilt down in an odd way. Her big liquid eyes are indescribable, somehow both wounded and laughing. Her body is on the voluptuous side, but there's never a sense that she's posing or flirting. She's no Gina or Marilyn. Or Catherine. She's comfortable. But she's a great actress: she can be many people and always seem herself.
As Fontaine, Devos fits into Fillières' Bunuel-style surrealism by starting out looking more conventional and relaxed than in other recent roles. But in her relaxed way, she's quite unpredictable. There's a kind of liberation in her Hamlet-like indecision, her wavering over men. The final scene is unconventional and surreal, with Fontaine and Michel in space suits by North Face, but she has made the choice characteristic of classic comedy: to be with the man she loves in Alaska, exploring the earth's mantle at 40 degrees below zero.
(Shown during the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema March 2006 at Lincoln Center, Gentille opened in Paris December 14, 2005.)
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