Dir: Tonie Marshall, France. 2003, 95 min.

After beauty parlours comes tele-marketing programmes. Tonie Marshall pursues the comic vision of French consumer society she deployed with wit and zest in her 1999 breakthrough hit, Venus Beauty Institute. But France Boutique, an inside look at a French tele-marketing and those who produce it, is only a partial return to form after the critical and commercial failure of last year's Au Plus Pres Du Paradis, a misguided effort to fashion a melodramatic vehicle for Catherine Deneuve via a tribute to Leo McCarey's cult 1938 weepie, Love Affair. Chastened by her disastrous foray into romantic drama, Marshall has returned to her comic roots - France Boutique perks with delightful comic outbursts and melancholy humour. However, weighed down by a script that tries to cover too much ground, it never finds a strong dramatic centre and suffers from a plodding rhythm as it juggles a large cast of characters. Still, to judge from initial results, customer response is more than promising, as France Boutique has enjoyed the best opening day results of Marshall's six features to date. Though the writer-director now has an international reputation thanks to Venus Beauty, this may prove a harder sell.

France Boutique isn't satire - Marshall is not delivering another facile send-up of the media. What gives the best scenes their flavour is, in fact, her genuine affection for this down-market media phenomenon, imported and Gallicised in the 80s. (During her leaner years as an actress, Marshall owed much to a limescale-removal detergent commercial she did on television.) She takes delight in showcasing the professional dedication of those who produce and animate tele-marketing programs, as idiotic or trashy as the product may be (apparently, all but one of the wares on view here are authentic.)

Unfortunately, Marshall and her co-scripter Pierre-Erwan Guillaume never succeed in really involving us in the private woes of their lead characters (as she did with such flair and feeling in Venus Beauty) and what dramatic movement there is remains plodding.

Karin Viard and Francois Cluzet are a forty-something couple who have been producing and hosting their own tele-marketing show on French cable for the past 10 years. Unfortunately, both their business and their marriage have been following a downward curve of late, their two frustrated egos occasionally colliding in the conference room or on the set. Both seek solace elsewhere in affairs, she with gigolos, he in a disastrously brief liaison with an assistant (Fillieres). But a professional crisis brings them back together when they learn that the show's internet sales associate (Baye) is out to steal their airtime by having them peddle a bogus 'anti-fear fluid.'

Appealing as Viard and Cluzet are, they are continually upstaged by a host of smaller roles, especially the delicious Judith Godreche as a blonde bimbo co-presenter, Bernard Menez, as the show's somewhat out-of-place art-house-minded director, Mickael Chirinian as a 'coming out' assistant and Noemie Lvovsky as lovesick employee who declares her passion to the embarrassed Cluzet as he stands at a rest room urinal. As usual, Marshall has written another wacky bit role for her mother, the wonderful Micheline Presle. Baye, who virtually owes her second breath to her personal triumph in Venus Beauty, has class and poise as the film's nominal 'heavy' - it's just a shame she doesn't have more to do.

Prod cos: Pyramide Productions, Maia Films, Tabo Tabo Films, France 2 Cinema
Int'l Sales: Flach Pyramide
Exec prods: Gilles Sandoz, Fabienne Vonier, Olivier Bomzel
Scr: Tonie Marshall, Pierre- Erwan Guillaume
DoP: Jean-Francois Robin
Ed: Jacques Comets
Prod des: Pierre-Francois Limbosch
Costumes: Anais Romand
Music: Pierre Aviat
Main cast: Karin Viard, Francois Cluzet, Judith Godreche, Bernard Menez, Micheline Presle, Helene Fillieres, Nathalie Baye