Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Very, very French (shall we say perverse): Anne Fontaine's THE GIRL FROM MONACO

Ah, Monaco: the lights, the bay, the glamor, the gambling! Yes -- and the sex, the murder, the eroticism (both homo and hetero)! There's more: A weather girl, her parents, a lawyer, his bodyguard -- and a new TV series devoted to celebrities and their pets. All of this is presented in a bright little package wrapped in colorful gauze tied with a loose and curly ribbon that simply begs you to open it. You do, of course --

who can resist Monaco? -- and it just keeps opening, like an onion, the insides of which you begin to suspect have gone rancid.

That's right: It's an Anne Fontaine film. This French writer/director, shown at right with her husband and star Fabrice Luchini, has been turning out dark divertissements (by the end of each you've often moved from smiling to feeling kicked in the teeth) since 1993, beginning with Love Stories Usually End Badly and continuing through Dry Cleaning, How I Killed My Father, Natalie and now THE GIRL FROM MONACO. (There are others in between which I've not seen.) Fontaine is transgressive; she enjoys snapping the underwear of the haute bourgeoisie, often literally taking her characters into a new realm of experience and feeling (Dry Cleaning), though things never end in quite the manner any of them might have planned. With Fontaine, one pays for one's transgressions, but the trip is often worth its price-tag -- for her characters and us viewers.

I've seen The Girl from Monaco twice and found the second viewing even more interesting. It is not a film from which you come away feeling awash in either happiness or depression; the connections evoked, along with the ironies, are more complicated and disturbing. Here, Fontaine has assembled a splendid cast (each performer so perfectly -- physically, mentally -- embodies his or her character), led by M. Luchini as the lawyer, new in town from Paris, who takes on the impossible-to-win case of an older woman (the wonderful Stephane Audran) accused of killing her younger lover. Because the case involves the Russian mob, a bodyguard (Roschdy Zem, above, left, and below, right) is hired to protect the lawyer. The bodyguard's ex girlfriend (Louise Bourgoin) happens to be the weather-person at the TV station in which Luchini is interviewed. Complications ensue.

Fontaine's movie does not, however, come close to French farce, for these complications involve some of the characters' learning and growing -- never an easy task. While there is a lot of fun (and sun, sand, sea and sex) to be enjoyed, what we're left with are very mixed feelings: surprise, doubt, sadness and also a kind of exhilaration at, well, new possibilities. Several critic friends have not particularly liked this film, and I can understand that, as Fontaine is tricky -- by design. I'd recommend giving it a try, however, if only for the crack cast.

Luchini (Molière, Intimate Strangers) is always good (don't miss him in the upcoming Paris, in which he has some of the funniest scenes in memory). Here, he does the fish-out-of-water to a fare-thee-well. Zem, looking younger and sexier than he has in years, brings such quiet, careful strength to his bodyguard that you'd hire him in a flash. And Bourgoin (above) is simply stunning: gorgeous, uninhibited and full of zesty life. Little wonder she was nominated for a César for Best Female Newcomer. As good as she is, however, she doesn't register as quite complete. This is not her fault, I think, but Fontaine's -- and by choice. In an interview with the actress (part of the press kit we were given at the screening), Bourgoin is asked if she thinks that her character is manipulative or simply truthful? She answers: "I performed her without knowing and without taking sides. In fact, Fontaine wanted me to emphasize the character's ambiguity: at times, she would tell me Audrey was really in love with Bertrand (Luchini), and at other times, that she didn't care about him and that she was a social climber." So much for depth of character -- yet this approach does manage to make Audrey a good foil for the two men.

Fontaine has always seemed more interested in men than women, perhaps because the guys have so much more of that "learning and growing" to do. In Dry Cleaning, the most important connection for growth and change is the relationship between the characters played by Charles Berling and Stanislas Merhar; here it's the connection between Luchini and Zem. In How I Killed My Father, the movie -- its ideas/themes -- belong to the Berling character; the women are satellites, at best. Even in Natalie, in which the women appear to be all-important, this is only because they exist as male fantasies. The Girl from Monaco continues down this road, with Luchini and Zem growing closer and more appreciative of each other. So where does this leave Ms Bourgoin? You'll find out.

The finale may have you grumbling a bit -- this is not a very "feminist" thing to do! -- but, believe me, it'll also leave you mulling things over as you gaze at the beautiful sea, sand, sun and shore. Ah, Monaco! Oy, the haute bourgeoisie! It isn't only Ms Audran who may bring to mind Chabrol. But Fontaine, bless her, has a rather unique "take" on all this.

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