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A banker has died. He trafficked in nuclear material, so French intelligence assign two agents to find his list of contacts, which are on a flash drive: Muriel - the boss, acerbic, willing to sleep with any man, wondering if she should have a child - and Philippe, younger, boyish, meticulous, bothered by Muriel's frank sexual interest. They watch Constance, the banker's widow: a naïf, friendly, open, trusting. She's taking opera lessons, so the French spies join the class, which Muriel enjoys. It seems that other spies are after the same USB, and some of them sing as well. Singing, spying, and sex lead to duets of all kinds as well as to an eventual showdown. Written by
"Confusion of Genres"--the title of a previous Duran Cohen film--is a good way to start looking at this one. The two main genres being "confused" this time being (screwy) romantic comedy and (peripheral) spy story. The take on relationships both social and professional is consistently wacky and the laughs are many. A spy-counter-spy hunt for a USB drive computer file that has something to do with illegal uranium trading is one plot line; the other is the intermingling of the students of Eve (Evelyne Kirschenbaum), an opera singer who gives voice lessens in her Paris apartment. The two plots are joined in a single big tangle when two partnered French intelligence agents, Muriel (Marina Fois) and Philippe (Lorant Deutsch), are commanded by their haughty boss (Dominique Reymond) to join the class in order to spy on the widow of a recently murdered banker/uranium dealer, Constance Muller (Jeanne Balibar). She may know where the USB drive is.
Something of the droll Gallic ill humor perfected by the team of Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bakri has rubbed off on Duran Cohen. Most of the characters are kvetches, except maybe Constance, and except that this time they all can sing, or try to. And their kvetching is consistently amusing. This film isn't a masterpiece, but it's fun to watch.
The director says "I like characters who don't take their own story seriously, they refuse to get totally involved with their destiny because they are either scared or refuse to grow up, although others always catch on to them, forcing them to shatter their cynicism." It goes without saying that Muriel and Philippe have sex, but Philippe isn't really interested, and Muriel annoys him and turns him off by constantly fretting about growing older and getting wrinkles.
It's not always clear whether these two are tracking the other singing students or just getting embroiled with them, because everybody's looking for sex, or love, or a mate. They think their fellow voice student Anna (Caroline Ducey) may be connected with the Israelis or the Russians. Rejected by Philippe, Muriel becomes interested in voice student Julien (Julien Baymgartner), a male prostitute who is having sex with Constance's sister-in-law Noemie (Nathalie Richard) and also the hairy gay "bear" and radiologist-terrorist Reza (Frederic Karkosian). And Reza and Noemie are in cahoots with each other. Julien is worried about getting old too--he's 29, ancient for a hustler. At a moment when everyone unloads before a class, Muriel reveals she wants to have a baby. Eve's oversensitive son Joseph (Guillaume Quatravaux), despite his lovely voice, wants to give up singing and leave his mother and her classes.
All his may be too complicated to follow, but it's held together by Duran Cohen's sense of rhythm, and by the sublimely ditsy Constance--that is, Balibar--who has no clear-cut direction in life--at the end she will drop opera singing for pop and enter a French variation on "American Idol"--but nonetheless is mellow about everything. It's she above all who helps us to understand Duran Cohen's idea about people not taking their story too seriously. And obviously the hunt for the computer file isn't more important than each person's search for happiness. Or a good blow job, or anal sex. (There's male frontal nudity, and some droll sex scenes.) Jeanne Balibar is ditsy, but with inner composure. It's a combination that's hard to explain, but very appealing. I'd never really understood Balibar's appeal till this film; now I get it. If she was annoying in Rivette's 'Duchess of Langeais' (though many loved her), in this you want to hug her, or at least I do. Constance is naive, and doesn't even know what a USB drive is. Or is she? Or does she? For Balibar agnostics like myself, this is a revelation; for believers, it takes her up a notch. Her naturalness and subtlety with the other actors are astonishing.
Philippe Lasry and Noemie Lvovsky collaborated with Duran Cohen on the writing, which keeps things too complicated without it really mattering. I don't know who among the various cast members is doing their own singing, but there's plenty of enjoyable music, and some beautiful voices, and even some nice piano playing. Constance not only has a large, attractive apartment in Paris, but a Steinway. I guess this shows that a French sex comedy can be funny (unlike the slick and labored 'Girl from Monaco', the other 2009 Rendez-Vous comedy).
Both were shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center in March 2009. 'Le Plaisir de chanter' opened in Paris theaters November 26, 2008 to some good reviews--though not all critics were convinced.
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