Dir: Pierre Salvadori. France. 2003. 110 mins.

Smart, tart and winningly funny, Apres Vous... marks Pierre Salvadori's return to the front rank of French comedy writer-directors. Salvadori, who first attracted attention with Wild Target, a 1992 black comedy about a hit man (played by Jean Rochefort), made his real critical and commercial breakthrough three years later with the male-bonding comedy of depression, Les Apprentis, after which he seemed to mark time. White Lies (1998), a comedy-drama starring Marie Trintignant as a pathological liar, didn't quite come off and his 2000 foray into gloom and doom urban drama, The Sandmen, was unconvincing.

Now Salvadori is back doing what he does best, making richly observed character-based dramatic comedies. A critical and box office hit in France (where it has now taken $6m after four weeks, in a market dominated by the likes of Finding Nemo and Return Of The King), Apres Vous... boasts an expertly constructed (and remake-friendly) script, a hilarious odd couple in Daniel Auteuil and comic phenomenon Jose Garcia, and pitch-perfect direction.

The story - a man saves a perfect stranger from suicide only to find he cannot get rid of the grateful wretch - which Salvadori co-authored from an original story idea by fellow writer-director Danielle Dubroux, might well furnish the plot of a Francis Veber comedy (and indeed Veber's script for Edouard Molinaro's 1973 comedy, L'Emmberdeur, centred on the story of a hit man who's prevented from executing a contract because of the suicidal idiot he runs into). But where Veber would use this as the springboard for a giddy series of farcical permulations between his two mismatched comperes, Salvadori fashions a warm human comedy about friendship, love and betrayal.

Auteuil is a head waiter in an upmarket Paris restaurant who cuts through the park one night on his way to dinner at his girlfriend's only to come across Garcia balanced on a large suitcase with his neck in a noose tied to a tree branch. Auteuil just saves him in the nick of time, only to realise that he has to stay with him if Garcia isn't to make another suicide attempt. The Good Samaritan in spite of himself, Auteuil now has to deal with the deal weight of gratitude, as he gets the incompetent Garcia a job as a wine waiter in his restaurant.

Auteuil unwisely oversteps the bounds of altruism when he decides that the only way to get the chronically depressed Garcia out of his life is to arrange a reconciliation with the latter's ex (Kiberlain), the reason for his suicide attempt. But, of course, his best-laid plans go wildly astray: Kiberlain gradually falls in love with Auteuil who in the meantime sees his own girl (Canto) walk out the door.

Auteuil again shows he can do character comedy with the same quiet aplomb and timing he brings to his more serious roles. Garcia, an explosive comedy talent and inveterate scene-stealer, responds well to Salvadori's direction, toning down his loud-mouthed exuberance to provide a hilarious but psychologically sound portrait of a man who runs the gamut from near-catatonic depression to self-assured but bitter regeneration. Kiberlain is sweetly touching as a young woman who prefers a bad relationship to no relationship at all. Canto, as Auteuil's girlfriend, again shows she's an actress of temperament and feeling who deserves more important roles.

Production cos: Films Pelleas, France 2 Cinema, Glem Production, Tovo Films
Fr dist:
Mars Distribution
Int'l sales:
Exception Wild Bunch
Philippe Martin
Pierre Salvadori, Benoit Graffin, David Colombo Leotard from an idea by Danielle Dubroux
Gilles Henry
Isabelle Devinck
Production designer:
Yves Fournier
Camille Barbaz
Main cast:
Daniel Auteuil, Jose Garcia, Sandrine Kiberlain, Marilyne Canto