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Beautiful Lies (De Vrais Mensonges)

Dir: Pierre Salvadori. France. 2010. 104mins 

An anonymous love letter does more harm than good when the initial recipient recycles it for somebody else in Beautiful Lies. Much as one would like to praise any contemporary tale in which characters pen expressive letters on stationery before posting them the old-fashioned way, Pierre Salvadori’s latest confection falls flat for far too much of its running time.

Whoever decided that Tautou should have a distracting string of tattooed red flowers snaking up her otherwise lovely neck should be shot.

Local reception for this protracted spin on The Shop Around the Corner is unlikely to be as warm as the film’s conspicuously sunny South of France seaside setting of Sète. Foreign prospects will hinge more on established affection for the cast than for any inherent narrative or cinematic qualities.

Shy, sensitive Jean (Bouajila) works as a janitor and handyman at a beauty salon co-owned by Emilie (Tautou) with whom he is madly and secretly smitten. Jean declares his feelings in an anonymous letter.

Oblivious to the fact that her mysterious admirer is Jean, Emilie retypes the letter and sends it anonymously to her mother, Maddy (Baye), hoping to cheer her up.  A still vivacious eccentric, Maddy refuses to accept that her husband, who left four years ago, isn’t coming back.

Maddy springs back to life but in a series of compound misunderstandings  — some funny, some forced — the epistolary fraud gets way out of hand. The vulgarity Salvadori miraculously managed to sidestep in 2006’s Priceless (Hors de prix) comes perilously close to surfacing here. While the central trio do their best to keep the convoluted proceedings afloat, there’s a charm deficit en route to a happy ending that doesn’t feel entirely earned.

Hairdresser Emilie is so brusque, cranky and self-centered - we’re introduced to her as she insists on chopping into a client’s fringe although the woman is clearly opposed - it’s almost impossible to understand why Jean pines for her so. Except, of course, that it’s in the script. Jean has a secret that’s the most original aspect of the story and also makes the casting of Bouajila doubly interesting.

Warner Bros. announced a remake of Salvadori’s Apres Vous to feature Billy Crystal back in 2005 and the director’s Wild Target was the object of a recent English-language remake starring Bill Nighy, but it seems unlikely that this template will inspire copies. Whoever decided that Tautou should have a distracting string of tattooed red flowers snaking up her otherwise lovely neck should be shot.

Production companies: Les Films Pelléas, TF1 Film Production, Tovo Films

International sales: Wild Bunch, www.wildbunch.biz

Producer: Philippe Martin

Screenplay: Pierre Salvadori, Benoît Graffin

Cinematography: Gilles Henry

Production designer: Yves Fournier

Editor: Isabelle Devinck

Music: Philippe Eidel

Website: www.pelleas.fr

Main cast: Audrey Tautou, Nathalie Baye, Sami Bouajila, Stephani Lagarde, Judith Chemla

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