Dir: Josiane Balasko. France. 2008.102mins.
Nathalie Baye gives a classy, nuanced performance as a successful divorced woman who pays young male escorts for sex in A French Gigolo (Cliente). Writer, director and co-star Josiane Balasko's intelligent take on how the need for money and/or sex dictates human behaviour is consistently engaging and never sordid. As an excellent conversation starter and press topic, the film should enjoy a high profile in France and has art house potential elsewhere for mature viewers who are not deterred by the English title. (The word 'cliente' denotes a female customer without specifying of what.)
While the subject sounds off-putting, so much so that it was initially impossible to finance, the film tackles that rarest of commodities: a story that hasn't been done to death. Balasko, whose trail-blazing comic hit Gazon Maudit presented the idea that it can be more fun to be a lesbian than a straight white male, here tackles the options confronting single women over 50, from full-blown romance to physical release for cash.
Despite her impressive track record on both sides of the camera and as a playwright, Balasko couldn't find funding for her original screenplay. Producers told her nobody wanted to see the problems of middle-aged women who can't find sexual partners. Or, worse yet, women appealing enough to get laid who choose to pay for the ministrations of escorts, much as men use the services of call girls. So Balasko wrote a novel covering the same ground. The book sold well, proving there was an audience for the topic, at least on paper, and four years later Balasko was able to make the film.
Self-assured divorcee Judith (Baye) co-runs a TV production company where she fronts a home shopping show. She's attractive, healthy, grounded and financially independent. While her sister and business partner Irene (Balasko) believes in true love even though she hasn't found it yet, Judith is unwilling to be hurt again emotionally and has been using male escorts. One is Marco (Carvaca), happily married to hairdresser Fanny (Carre) who thinks her husband is working on construction sites. Soon, however, Judith and Marco's relationship gets more serious.
What Laurent Cantet's wildly uneven Vers Le Sud tried to explore with a more overt political subtext (sexually frustrated single white women from the First World pay Haitian boys for sex), Balasko investigates closer to home and in terms anybody can relate to. While Richard Gere's character in American Gigolo was a pro with all the moves and trappings, Marco isn't a professional gigolo and that's what makes him endearing. He's just trying to make ends meet in a world of rampant unemployment and escalating costs.
Balasko won't win any awards for her technical filmmaking skills -there's a lot of voiceover to glue things together - but she has enough craft at her disposal to tell this story worth telling.
France 3 Cinema
(33) 146 43 20 13
Based on her novel Cliente
Marie de la Selle