Any film whose title is in the form of an amorous solicitation must meet certain criteria. First, it should concern the awkward physical beginnings of love: the glances, the touches, the timid approaches. Second, it must address lovers’ preliminary insecurities, the kind that lead such questions to be voiced in the first place. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, the film must showcase the best that the art form — that is, the kiss — has to offer.
Shall We Kiss? is, in this respect, no disappointment; it focuses, to the point of exhaustion, on the minutiae of fresh love. Gabriel (Michael Cohen) and Emilie (Julie Gayet) are two (already involved) strangers who meet in Nantes — their subsequent evening out together, and the lengthy story-within-a-story that Emilie tells to demonstrate the dangers of “just a kiss,” are an examination into our ability to resist the pull of mutual attraction. Suffice it to say that, in the imagination of writer and director Emmanauel Mouret, there is nothing certain in life and love: the faintest whiff of attraction, the slightest pull of temptation, and our fates are forever changed.
This may sound a mysterious thesis; in execution, it is anything but. As the second criterion above suggests, Shall We Kiss? directs its gaze not only at the beginning of the affair, but at the lovers’ hesitations and reflections on that beginning. Put delicately, there is lots of talking in the film. Gabriel makes a move with a corny one-liner (the French, one learns, are nothing if not direct); Emilie rebuffs him with the moral from a story; hours of conversation ensue. And when, finally, we make it to the bedroom, there is no animal passion or incomprehensible grunting — instead, we get some of the most painfully plodding foreplay ever witnessed. What Shall We Kiss? teaches us — and what I’m not quite sure Mouret recognizes — is that there is a point in every romantic encounter in which it’s time to shut up.
Perhaps the only way to learn this lesson is by overexposure. In Emilie’s story, two friends (also both with significant others) meet the terrible consequences of a one-off, casual fling. Nicholas (played decently by Mouret, though he could have used fewer stutters) is a paradigm case of verbal diarrhea; every touch of Judith’s (Virginia Ledoyen) body, every shift of position, is preceded by a verbal request (“Can I caress your other breast?” he says dispassionately). Needless to say, this gets tiresome; by the end, the audience wishes that Mouret had devoted a bit more time to editing his screenplay (namely, cutting out a good portion of the endlessly aggravating pre-kiss banter).
And what of the kiss itself? Shouldn’t this be the central performance of the film, what with the title and the build-up? The question concerns Mouret’s aesthetic abilities, which are, by and large, fantastic. He’s stolen more than a few pages from Woody Allen’s book, deftly inserting Tchaikovsky and Schubert into his drawn-out interior scenes and staking quite a bit on what can and cannot be seen within the frame — either by the characters (can she him eavesdropping around the corner?) or the audience (what is the significance, we wonder, of the comically small quilt, the misproportioned bed?). Certain sections of the film take on a play-like quality well-suited to the slow, dialogue-centric nature of the plot; one wishes Mouret had used even fewer cuts. And the set and costume design are top-notch — though, by the end of the film, the antiseptic whites and beiges of Judith’s apartment, and of the clothes of all who enter it, seems somewhat redundant, given the life-altering passion that has taken place therein. And the kisses? Not bad, not bad at all.
Shall We Kiss? is, in the end, less a romance film than a film about romance. Its coy, skeptical conclusions — we are all prey to fleeting temptation and its disastrous consequences, no love is so strong that a chance meeting with a stranger might not destroy it, etc. — are made overly clear. In this, perhaps, the repetitive structure and colors of the film suit its purpose: life is a never-ending battle against (and surrender to) carnal passions; if only we were as articulate as these well-dressed characters, we might have made this realization long ago. But, outside of the cinema, no one wants to see love so endlessly deconstructed and discussed.
Shall We Kiss? is playing at Cornell Cinema tonight at 7:15, on Monday at 9:30 and on Tuesday at 7:15 in Willard Straight Hall. Tickets are $4 for students.