14 May 2007

The Valet

It's kind of lovely, given its off-the-wall premise, how understated and earnest this film ends up being. It starts off looking like a wacky screwball comedy, and ends up normalizing its own absurdity so much that it almost seems like a run of the mill feel-good flick. The more I think about it, the more odd it seems; the way the film sets itself up for certain generic scenes and then goes in a completely different direction, how it blithely skates over certain scenes that would seem to be essential, the neutral treatment of the characters - quite curious. Intriguing as it is though, it's disorienting enough to ultimately leave one feeling vaguely uncertain of the whole experience.

The plot basically centers around two couples; on the one hand, our bumbling bozo protagonist Francois (a man with truly remarkable eyes) the valet, who has just proposed to his girlfriend and been rejected. This is rather poorly executed, actually - they hardly even seem to be dating, and her brusque dismissal of his proposal - "You're like my kid brother" - sort of inclines one to think that they weren't really meant to be. Then we have couple number two, the marvelously cool Kristin Scott Thomas and her spouse, played by Daniel Auteil. He is a fabulously wealthy CEO, but his finances are somehow dependent on his wife's good will - she owns a major portion of the stock in his company, or something, I dunno. Anyhow, he's cheating on her with a supermodel named Elena - the absolutely breathtaking Alice Taglioni. Ms. Taglioni has that resplendent Juliette Binoche type of beauty - a drop dead gorgeous woman with radiant skin and the kind of smile that makes one think she's never had a vicious thought in her head. What she sees in Auteil is mostly unclear, but the film has a kind of "just go with it" attitude to this kind of detail. Anyhow, the paparazzi catch a shot of the two of them together, and Auteuil has to scramble to cover his ass so that his wife doesn't find out. As it happens, Francois was walking by right as the picture was taken, so Auteuil's lawyer - a fascinating character in his own right - comes up with the idea of creating an elaborate cover up by having Francoise and Elena pretend to be a couple. Francoise agrees to do it in exchange for the cash that his would-be fiancee needs to cover her debts, and Elena agrees in exchange for 20 million euros, which will be returned to Auteuil when he divorces his wife (and marries her). So we're all set for hilarious hijinx to ensue, right? Well, wrong, actually. I mean, sure, there's some comedy, but not in any of the places you'd really expect. Elena and Francois settle in together without a trace of awkwardness, chatting like old pals. There's some humor in Elena showing up at Francois' work - complete with the slapstick comedy of people so mesmerized by the sight of it that they fail to notice that they've set themselves on fire - and a bit of comedy around Francoise's buddy, who is forced to move back to his mom's place, but on the whole, there's remarkably little action (but, it should be said, some of the humor is truly excellent, laugh out loud stuff). In the end, Francoise gets his girl, Kristin Scott Thomas does some pretty impressive manipulating and keeps her husband to herself, and Elena ends up silently crying to herself and apparently realizing she's better off without the guy. Um, ok. Wait, so, what was the point of all that?

Some of the satisfaction of the film comes from the moments where all these people come together and enjoy each other's company. There's a jolly scene where Francois brings both his fiancee and Elena to his father's birthday party - because of course the two women end up being good friends too. This is all the more surprising, given that earlier, Elena offers the kind of "she's a woman, of course she'll do x" homespun wisdom that seems to presume that women are generally irrational beings who can be expected to behave in certain cliche ways, and yet when it comes down to it, most of the characters are almost outrageously rational. This is what makes the interactions between Francois and Elena so curious, actually. They both genuinely like and appreciate each other, and there's even a kind of chemistry between them, but no tension. There are only two moments when this gets tested - one, when they're sharing a bed and Francois rolls over and starts fondling Elena, thinking, in his sleep, that she's his girl. He wakes up, realizes she's not, and goes on sort of carressing her and sleepily describing his dream, until she, clearly feeling a bit startled and uncomfortable, tells him he ought to roll over and pretend she's his best friend. And just like that, the situation is defused. Then, on another occasion, she's crying, he's cheering her up, and she snuggles up to him and says how wonderful he is, because most other men are creeps who just want to have sex with her. And he, looking a bit frightened, says that given a few more minutes of cuddling, he'll become one too. She sort of giggles, but draws back, and he resolutely returns to the couch. I don't know quite know why these two scenes really stuck out for me - there's a kind of simplicity in them, two people being very honest with each other and calmly accepting a certain state of affairs without any feelings getting hurt. It's a model for a close friendship between a man and a woman, where they really care about each other, and there's a certain level of attraction, and yet it's clear that they will never be more than great friends. Honestly, things rarely work out so neatly in the real world. But it sure would be great if they did.

At the end of the day, it's a pleasant movie to watch, but rather uneven. The tone keeps shifting between a sort of wry appreciation for the calculation and intrigue in human relationships, an offbeat absurd comic sensibility - mainly embodied in the best friend and his alcoholic mother - and these emo heartfelt reflections on true love. The transitions between irony and sincerity are kind of baffling, though not as jarring as one would expect. So at the end of the day, it's basically a nice movie with a very likeable cast. It won't blow your mind, but it's not a bad way to spend 2 hours.

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