Dir: Noemi Lvovsky. France. 2003. 95mins.
French director Noemie Lvovsky came to notice with two small autobiographical features set at different stages in the life of four girls. The second, Life Doesn't Scare Me (La Vie Ne Me Fait Pas Peur, 1999) earned Lvovsky a slew of festival prizes, including a Locarno Silver Leopard, and made her a rising talent to watch. Like most rising talents, though, she needs to stumble before she can run; and Les Sentiments is her first stumbling-block. A comedy of infidelity, the film has its perceptive moments, plus a certain verve and brio that will sweep less finicky viewers along, particularly on home ground. But the fluffy theatricality of the exercise - emphasised by deliberately stylised costumes, set design, and an annoying acapella chorus that comments ironically on the action at regular intervals - undermines what might have been a telling comedy of modern morals. Film screened in competition at Venice.
The mise en scene is cliched but effective: Jacques, a married country doctor with grown-up kids, is in the process of handing on his practice to Francois, a younger, newly-married colleague. During the overlap, both couples live opposite each other in two picture-postcard country cottages. But the friendship and cosy intimacy that unite the two couples is thrown out of kilter when Jacques and Francois' young wife, Edith, embark on an affair.
The film is openly theatrical in inspiration and style. Lvovsky has acknowledged a debt to the jaded romantic comedies of Alfred de Musset, but this is candy-floss in comparison. It is as if Eric Rohmer had been asked to script a Woody Allen film, then had his handiwork sexed up by an aspirational daytime TV writer.
This is a shame, because Les Sentiments has its moments - most of which occur in the scenes between Isabelle Carre and Jean-Pierre Bacri. Carre gives Edith a gawky, bubbling girlish energy, which illuminates and rejuvenates Bacri's paunchy, mid-life crisis doctor. Baye is less convincing as Carole, the faithful doctor's wife with a drink problem; she's a tad too glamorous for the role, and spends most of her time grinning broadly when she's not called on to do tired, or drunk, or angry.
In the end, though, the film is undermined by its resolute refusal to take its characters seriously. Some will find Edith's floral frocks, or the frou-frou excesses of Carole and Jacques' house, brilliantly tongue-in-cheek; some will find telling truths about love in the words of the strident modern-opera songs delivered by the garishly-dressed chorus, who look like a bad 1980s New Romantic trip. Others - present company included - will be merely irritated, and reminded, in the case of the commenting chorus, of Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite, where the same device was managed with more comic verve.
Prod cos: ARP Hirsch, TF1 Films Production
Int'l sales: ARP
Executive prod: Pierre Grunstein
Prods: Claude Berri, Michele and Laurent Perrin
Scr and song lyrics: Noemie Lvovsky, Florence Seyvos
Cinematography: Jean-Marc Fabre
Prod des: Francoise Dupertuis
Main cast: Nathalie Baye, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Isabelle Carre, Melvil Poupaud