Wednesday, April 29, 2015

CHIC! Fashion, fun and a little love in Jérôme Cornuau & Jean-Paul Bathany's French charmer

I was told that CHIC!, the new movie starring that diva-to-idolize, Fanny Ardant, was a French farce. It's not. There are no slamming doors, characters running from room to room, in flagrante delicto moments, nor any of the other signs that a farce in on view. This surprisingly low-key movie refuses to push almost anything, relying instead on subtlety, sweetness and humor based more on character than situation to charm the pants off us. Which it does. My pants, at least (my spouse's, too).

Fashion is the theme here: how and why it is created and the effect is has on the half-dozen or so main characters on view. These would include the notorious and talented haute-couture legend responsible for the line (Ms Ardant, above); the haughty young woman, Hélène, near the top of the food chain of the corporation who "owns" the designer and her line (the delightfully sour Marina Hands, below);

her boss, a would-be Napoleon whose constant shouting can't quite conceal his ferocious fear (the very funny Laurent Stocker, at center, below), and the down-to-earth gardener (a terrific Eric Elmosnino) hired to give Hélène's home a touch of green.

You might remember M. Elmosnino (below, center) from his César-winning title role in Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life. His performance here shows once again how very versatile he is, fitting easily into just about any kind of character and genre.

The film's director, Jérôme Cornuau (shown below), is a newcomer to my purview, though he has made nearly 20 films (most of them for French television). So whether it is more his doing or that of his screenwriter,
Jean-Paul Bathany, I cannot say for certain (maybe a lucky combination of both), but the product of this collaboration is such a gentle, loving rom-com-cum-satire that yours truly found himself, for maybe the first time in his film-going history, being able to appreciate a movie with fashion -- the most-often appalling and ludicrous of all the supposed "arts" -- at its center.

How Monsieurs Cornuau & Bathany achieve this is by keeping their humor grounded in character rather than "event," the latter of which usually leads to a sit-com  Even their "diva" is just a human being, brought to fine life by Ardant, who has a wonderful little speech toward film's end, in which her character tackles behavior and artists and makes a most interesting, sensible and telling point.

All the characters here -- even the nasty boss, silly as he is -- behave too intelligently for farce. Scene after scene offers a small surprise (note the pitch-perfect one that takes place in the office of Hélène's shrink), and when characters do stupid or bad things, they pay for them. Yet the film is full of funny events and happenings, all handled in a lovely, low-key style. How much more unusual -- and welcome -- is this approach than that of all-out satire, farce or over-the-top humor.

Ms Hands (who also won a César for her fine performance as and in Lady Chatterley) is quite special here, balancing her anger and hauteur against a genuineness and gentleness just begging to be allowed to appear. As they gradually do, the movie morphs into something we hadn't initially expected. Think of it as a rom-com with smarts -- lots of 'em.

Chic! -- from Distrib Films US and running 103 minutes -- opens this Friday, May 1, at Laemmle's Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills. If you don't live in the L.A. area, never fear: the film will be available simultaneously on Vudu, iTunes and Google Play.  (Eventually, I would hope, we'll be able to see this one via Netflix streaming. But not quite yet.)

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