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Patrice Leconte's Mon Meilleur Ami (My Best Friend) is a wonderfully bifocal film. Even as we watch François Coste (Daniel Auteuil) bumblingly try to make a friend - he has never, it turns out, really had one - we feel his pathos from the inside, too, as he makes his way from wondering what all the fuss about friendship is about to walking across the Pont Solferino with his new chum. It would all be disastrously sentimental if it were not so nakedly existential and so mindful of human limitations.
François needs to make a friend in order to win a bet proposed by his business partner, Catherine (Julie Gayet). He doesn't see that it's a bet that can't be won until he's well into an increasingly desperate search. When it finally dawns on him that there is no everyday way of proving to a doubting world that someone is your friend, he stages an ingenious charade. This not only costs him the friend whom he was on the point of making but reaffirms his judges' conviction that François is a chilly manipulator. The stake of the bet - what François will have to forfeit if he loses - is smashed, and, along with it, the bubble inside which François has hitherto lived. The disaster paradoxically opens his heart to the feelings of others.
François's tutor in friendship is his opposite number, Bruno Bouley (Dany Boon). Bruno drives a taxi and is an ardent triviaphile. When he chances to give François a ride, he chatters away about famous inhabitants of passing streets. François, who is a galerist specializing in Art Déco, catches him up in an error. During a subsequent ride - not so improbable as you might think, given Parisian taxi ranks - Bruno counsels Louise, François's daughter (Julie Durand), to seek treatment for her asthma, a condition of which François is effectively heedless. (It will turn out that Louise is allergic to nuts.)
Also on this second ride, François leaves something in the taxi, and Bruno, being Bruno, loses no time in returning it to him. By now, the bet is on, and François has an incentive to notice that Bruno befriends people effortlessly. He decides to hire Bruno as his friendship coach. Bruno is dubious, but, again, being Bruno, he agrees to help out. Hopeless at charming strangers in the street - they're more inclined to flee in alarm - François falls back on his original plan, which was to locate old friends from the past. He has Bruno drive him out to a suburb of Paris, where his best friend from third grade lives. He sends Bruno off, confident that he will be asked to stay to dinner. In the event, of course, he is outrageously rebuffed; the supposed best friend reveals that he and his classmates thought that François was a creep. Bruno, fortunately, has foreseen this development and remained close at hand, to ferry François back to Paris.
Dinner with Bruno's parents is more successful, but François's charming manner is shown to be a self-interested act (if he makes Bruno's parents happy, Bruno will be his friend.) Then comes the charade, and Bruno is all the more stricken by François's manipulation because, as we discover, his actual best friend ran off with his wife. Trustful Bruno has a knack for being betrayed big-time.
Bruno's grand desire has long been to be a contestant on the French equivalent of Jeopardy. Alas, he also dries up during the interviews and forgets his facts. But François, unbeknownst to Bruno, has an opportunity to sidestep the preliminaries and get Bruno in front of the camera. Having watched a few French quiz shows on TV5, I can say that Mr Leconte's adaptation combines Gallic rigor with American frenzy. The questions are incomparably more difficult than any that would be asked over here, but the frothiness of the television audience, not to mention the extreme lighting effects, are at odds with my experience of French composure. The show makes for great cinema, though, and we can almost feel Bruno's heart pounding. Suddenly unsure of how to answer the million-Euro question (did Manet or Monet refuse to exhibit at the first Impressionist show in 1874), Bruno is given the chance to call a friend. After much debate, He calls François, who of course knows the right answer. Whether he's going to share it with Bruno becomes more and more maddeningly doubtful as the two men talk over their relationship on national television.
My Best Friend is a fable. There are few people in François's position who cluelessly lack friends, but all of us are guilty from time to time of a self-absorption in our own problems that puts our willingness to see that friends might be in trouble (much less to help them out) beyond reach. Mr Leconte also wrestles with the paradox at the heart of friendship: if it's so good for you, how you can you pursue it altruistically? In short, My Best Friend is about all of us. (July 2007)
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