Dir: Alain Resnais. France-Switzerland. 2003 115 mins.
Alain Resnais and humour make strange bedfellows and his new film is grounds for divorce: Not On The Mouth is a glossy but charmless adaptation of a comic operetta and the best argument do date for Resnais, the erstwhile icon of solemn art house fare, to give up doing films that are uncongenial to his artistic temperament. Lubitsch he's not ' he's not even the Francois Ozon of 8 Women.
Resnais continues to go slumming, working under the misguided assumption that because he is a lifelong fan of such popular cultural forms as comic strips and musical comedy, he can lighten up in his choice of subjects. Sadly, no. His 1989 foray into (English-language) farce comedy, I Want To Go Home, was a transatlantic shambles. The Cesar-award-winning cross-Channel diptych, Smoking/No Smoking dulled the comic edge of the Alan Ayckbourn play cycle on which it were based. Then came the 1997 the Same Old Song, which balanced a comedy of depression with wry song interpolations in the Dennis Potter manner and which was Resnais' biggest commercial success do date, even if, arguably, it owed more to its writers and cast rather to than Resnais' dour direction.
Not On the Mouth dates from 1925 and is typical of the genre, a naughty but nice sub-Feydeau 'vaudeville', enlivened with pleasant music and an occasionally witty book and lyrics by Maurice Yvain and Andre Barde. It was first filmed as an early talkie that, artless as it was, retained more of the stage work's charm that Resnais has done with this plodding production gussied up with gorgeous sets and costumes. Ironically, this isn't one of the director's long-cherished project, just a stopgap, ready-to-shoot effort he undertook due to the postponement of a much more ambitious project.
First week reaction in France has been strong, given that the film opened fifth against the likes of Finding Nemo, Kill Bill Vol 1 and Love Actually. Overseas, prospects are more limited as the humour, wordplay and musical numbers will prove difficult to translate in all but the most sympathetic markets.
Resnais has virtually filmed the operetta as it is written: a three-act, two-set farce about a dizzy Parisian bourgeoise (Azema), remarried to a French businessman (Arditi), who panics when she learns that the American businessman who's coming to clinch a deal with Arditi is in fact her first husband (Wilson), a prissy neurotic who has an aversion to being kissed on the mouth.
There are, off course, complications galore provided by secondary characters, including a family friend (Prevost) and young art student (Lespert), both of whom would like to get it on with Azema. When the plot reaches an adequate peak of confusion, the action moves to a bachelor flat where the entire cast converges for the happy, and more or less moral, finish.
Pacing, spontaneity, comic imagination ' Resnais' direction lacks all of these. Worse, he tends to inject a note of sterile portentousness: when Arditi airs his idiotic theory on marital fidelity, Resnais isolates him in sinister darkness as if we're going to get a Hamlet soliloquy. When the same character brandishes his daily newspaper, we get an insert of the title ' a notorious far-right, anti-Semitic rag. And when actors make their exits, they don't so much walk off the set as literally fade from the screen.
Infected by Resnais' fastidiousness, the players hand in busily unfunny performances, which is pretty damning when you consider that most of the cast ' Azema, Arditi, Prevost and especially Darry Cowl ' are expert stage and screen farceurs.
Prod cos: Arena films/France 2 Cinema/France 3 Cinema/Arcade/Vega Films
International sales: Pathe International
Fr dist: Pathe
Executive producer: Bruno Pesery
Screenplay: Alain Resnais, from the operetta by Andre Barde and Maurice Yvain
Cinematography: Renato Berta
Editor: Herve de Luze
Costumes: Jackie Budin
Production designer: Jacques Saulnier
Music: Maurice Yvain
Musical director: Bruno Fontaine
Main cast: Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azema, Isabelle Nanty, Lambert Wilson, Audrey Tautou, Jalil Lespert, Daniel Prevost, Darry Cowl