December 1, 2008

What's French for We've Seen This Before?

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If film has universally taught us anything, it is that love triangles really suck. There’s nothing quite as painful as introducing an odd number into an aspect of human nature that usually seems destined for two (shoes are another). There are always exceptions. Shakespeare tried playing with what felt like an inverted love pentagram, or perhaps a love dodecahedron in Twelfth Night. In general, if stuck for a dramatic movie plot, write three compelling characters with hopes, dreams, desires, idiosyncrasies and tragic flaws. Force two to love the third, deeply and maddeningly, and leave it to the audience to watch the third decide between the two. Shake thoroughly first and then serve chilled.
Even the stereotypically art-house French school of films can utilize the old cinematic standby. Director Claude Chabrol presents La fille coupée en deux, or by its North American title, A Girl Cut in Two. Based on that title alone, as well as the contents of the previous paragraph, the basic mechanics of storyline should be easy to imagine. There are no complex camera angles, the narrative is linear, nothing much fancy except for the offbeat classical music that punctuates moments of exposition-lacking dialogue. Just plenty of realism and fresh-faced acting.
Ludivine Sagnier (Peter Pan, Paris, je t’aime) plays ingénue television weather girl Gabrielle Snow, who seems to be living a routine life of a recent 20-something in France. She lives with her mother, ignores drama at work and is the fresh young face of her news network. In parallel run the lives of Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel), a millionaire playboy who inherited his father’s chemical company, and his ill-chosen rival, Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand, The Transporter), a nationally revered writer who loves to quote the classics.
Gabrielle runs into Saint-Denis after he gives a TV interview at her station, and subsequently attends his book signing. Gaudens arrives at the signing, hearing Saint-Denis was in town. The two men know and detest one another through proximity in their social circle. (Circles get smaller the higher up one goes.) Gaudens lays eyes on Gabrielle in the bookstore, and he is immediately smitten, but she only has eyes for Saint-Denis. The writer has been married since before she was born. Oh, the melodrama!
Of course, the actress Sagnier exudes stunning natural beauty, and Saint-Denis finds Gabrielle’s innocence to be as fascinating as her body. He beds her, and she falls head over heels for this much older man because he charms her with ageless sophistication through his quotations. After a steamy afternoon tryst, she coyly suggests she is not the first girl Saint-Denis has brought up to his loft away from home. He makes full eye contact and tells her she could be his last.
However, life is only peppered with and not composed of magical moments like that (as Gabrielle realizes — the guy gives her the boot while the sheets are still warm). Saint-Denis must navigate his devoted wife (Valeria Cavalli), whom he doesn’t seem too eager to leave for Gabrielle. And his equally beautiful publicist Capucine (Mathilda May) drifts in and out of the picture, always half-smiling, and not entirely to herself. Of course he’s done this before. When the audience finds Saint-Denis among “friends” at an upscale bar that reveals itself to be a deviant whorehouse, and discovers Capucine there, she remains amused. What does he have in store for Gabrielle? Why does the publicist know about it?
Simultaneously, Paul Gaudens is infatuated to a sickening degree. As we catch glimpses into his family life, his relationships with his mother, insinuations about his inheritance, we grow increasingly less amused. Especially when Gabrielle gives in to his relentless odes of love and devotion. She attends a few pity dates, and Gaudens displays new levels of psychotic intensity each time. Why does she entertain his comments, his stalking, his grabbing her by the neck? Where are the red flags?
Gabrielle allows herself to become corrupted by these two men. We like her at first for her seeming innocence, but this soon leads to her being completely taken advantage of. Another movie where the girl rides a fine line between being Lolita or the victim. Great. Something new and exciting for the audience. Yawn?
Will Saint-Denis leave his comely wife of many years for a woman half his age who hurls herself at him no matter what depravity the situation hurls back at her? Will Gaudens be a misunderstood case of misplaced expectations or a masochistic psychopath? Who will Gabrielle choose? The answers will surprise you, if you’ve never seen a soap opera in your life, or have any hope for humanity. And if you thought the characters in Margot at the Wedding or Smart People were unlikable for their brutality and predictability, raise your tray, fasten your seatbelt and return your seat to the upright position.
The film does have one likable character, if only for a while: Gabrielle’s mother, played by Marie Bunel. We study her looks of horror as her only daughter, a rare flower in her mother’s eyes, informs her that she is seeing a man older than her own father with cheerful optimism. But then, after the old man gives her daughter the rag doll treatment, we hear the mother confiding cowardly to her brother, and we almost feel sorry for Gabrielle. Almost. It’s like no one is rooting for her. And then she acts for herself, and we start rooting against her. The film is marketed as a black comedy, but the joke’s on us.