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Un baiser, s'il vous plaît?

(Shall We Kiss?)

What do you suppose was in that philtre, that potion that Tristan and Isolde drank, that made them fall passionately, recklessly in love? Or do you think that they were in love already? It doesn't make a difference, does it. There's simply no explaining that kind of love. There's no assigning blame to people who feel gripped by utterly an uncontrollable desire to be together. Perhaps such lovers are just as crazy as the victims of those other uncontrollable desires that require us to institutionalize them. Lovers certainly do cause a lot of damage.

The opacity of love, the inability of lovers to explain it to themselves, much less to anyone else, is the subject of Emmanuel Mouret's Un baiser, s'il vous plaît? (Shall We Kiss?). Like a virtuoso chef, Mr Mouret serves up his essay on love with two sauces, one funny, the other grave. Both are delicious enough to persuade us not only to swallow but to digest the idea that there's no making sense of amour fou — of course not! It's "mad love"! It can spring forth in the unlikeliest places.

This is certainly the lesson that Émilie (Julie Gayet) has learned from the experience of her friend Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), a young woman who makes the mistake of thinking that she has no lessons to learn. The film begins in the provincial town of Nantes, and when Émilie explains to Gabriel (Michaël Cohen), a stranger to whom she is mysteriously drawn, that she would kiss him goodnight (and goodbye) if it were not for what happened to Judith, whose life and friendship with Nicolas (Mr Mouret) she begins to describe, we think that we've been shown one of those framing devices, and that the story of Émilie and Gabriel will dissolve into insignificance beside the story that Émilie proceeds to tell. But Mr Mouret has something more complex in mind. The whole point of the Parisian story will be to illuminate the one taking place in the present, late at night, at a small hotel at the mouth of the Loire.

Up to a point, the romance of Judith and Nicolas is played for laughs, and quite expertly. Mr Mouret's Nicolas is a sweet-looking man capable of making you forget that, despite all the appearances of physical maturity, he is no longer eleven years old. Ms Ledoyen's Judith is sophisticated but sympa. (And Ms Ledoyen's great looks appear to be as immortal as Catherine Deneuve's.) Close friends since lycée, Judith and Nicolas ought to be proof against carnal longings. It's precisely on the strength of their friendship that Nicolas begs Judith to help him with a problem that he's having: namely, he is dying for physical affection. This appeal to female benevolence has been worked by Lotharios for so many centuries that we would be furious with the filmmaker for subjecting a woman as bright and clear-headed as Judith to it, if it were not perfectly clear that Nicolas is sincere. That's the fun: for once, the man is as innocent as the woman. Which only makes the game more dangerous. Had Nicolas simply wanted to add a notch to his belt, and improbably chosen an old friend as his next victim, the worst that might have happened would be a little heartache for Judith. But Nicolas does not mean to exploit Judith. He really does want her help. If he doesn't make love with someone soon, his monomania will render him incapable of meeting a nice girl and settling down.

So Judith, as a best friend, consents to playing an adult version of "Doctor." Mr Mouret does a fine job of extracting all the comic juices from the awkward, necessarily business-like encounter that ensues in Judith's bedroom. We're given a wonderful parody of the carefree, love in the afternoon that consenting French people are believed to indulge in. Nicolas gropes; Judith fingers her pearls and wonders what to think. We titter. When Judith gives Nicolas permission to do whatever it is that he wants to do next, there follows a disquisition on the dangers of kissing in these circumstances.

Meanwhile, Mr Mouret presents his concocted romance against a scenic background that would be obtrusive if it were not so beige. Judith's apartment, where the action takes place for the most part, is furnished with greatly oversized pictures and extremely studied tablescapes. The effect of the interior décor is, strangely, to convey the impression of a playroom, of a space uninhabited by real adults. This harmonizes beautifully with Nicolas's childlike requests and Judith's uncertain responses: since when, we ask, do adults behave like this? The camera pulls back from the bed before the situation becomes truly intimate, for which we're very grateful, as Judith and Nicolas are certain to wind up hugely embarrassed about what they've done.

When they get together again, six weeks later, they're certainly ill-at-ease; but it turns out that they're not embarrassed at all. Far from wishing that they'd never taken their clothes off in the same room, they've both discovered that they can think of little besides doing so again, and soon. Judith is certain — quite ridiculously certain — that their memories of the first time are so satisfying because they weren't really setting out to make grand passionate love. What they must do, therefore, is try for grand passionate love, and reconcile themselves to the disappointment of failing to achieve it. But it's the scheme that fails. (The dispatch with which Judith and Nicolas progress from bourgeois conversationalists to naked lovers seems intriguingly counterpoised to the impossibility of getting anything to eat in Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie.)

Judith, unfortunately, is married — hitherto, happily — to Claudio, a well-to-do young man who owns a pharmacy near the Parc Monceau. Claudio is a nice guy, but Judith quickly discovers that he is never going to be the bedmate that Nicolas is. The lovers come up with a hare-brained scheme to get themselves off the hook by tempting Claudio with another woman. The scheme is doomed in advance by Claudio's resolute sense of being happily and honorably married, but a plot is set into motion anyway. We can't imagine how it will turn out, because by moving Claudio toward the foreground Mr Mouret has queered his comedy, which has no place for the likes of a decent, appealing husband. When neither Judith nor Nicolas hears from Claudio, or from the decoy, for three days, we sense that the fun is over — as indeed it is.

We see that it is over when Claudio makes a brief return to Judith's apartment to pack a bag of his things. Mr Mouret lights him very dramatically, in a manner quite unlike the neutral — one might almost say, inconsequential — tones in which Judith and Nicolas have moved back and forth in the same space. His back to Judith, Claudio turns his head into three-quarter profile, and the light coming from beyond his farther shoulder makes a nimbus of his frazzled hair and gilds the contours of his forehead and cheek. In his tamped-down outrage, he is a figure of great moral weight, a fully-constituted adult. Judith is lost alongside him. The last we see of her and Nicolas, they are walking away from us, down a wide allée in a park. Judith tells Nicolas that she is going to be unhappy for a long time if she has really hurt Claudio. But she's as obviously stuck with Nicolas as if Dante had planted her next to him in a nether circle of hell.

All of this has a lot more to do with Émilie, it turns out, than gossip about a friend. As she and Gabriel progress from the hotel parking lot to the hotel bar, and finally to Émilie's hotel room, our sense of her alarming vulnerability almost has us squinting at her companion, as if he might be meditating rape. Her unflagging Gioconda smile computes the consequences of her friends' rash experiment, their naive belief that they could fool around carnally without emotional consequences. When Gabriel finally closes the door behind him, leaving Émilie to a short night's sleep, we're both relieved and immensely saddened.

In Bergsonian terms, Mr Mouret has accomplished a remarkable feat, by denaturing rather than breaking the magic circle of farce that surrounds Judith and Nicolas as they risk falling in love and then try to accommodate their plight. Once protected by it, they are now imprisoned, diminished, within it, while, outside, characters with genuinely tragic possibilities walk freely. Many viewers, of course, will be put off by the shift in tone, but only, perhaps, when they think about it. Mr Mouret directs his actresses so well that the spectacle of his film is ravishing no matter what's supposed to be going on; both women appear to be acting against the grain, to great effect. Ms Gayet's bemusement suggests that even Émilie does not know what she's trying to conceal; while, as for Ms Ledoyen, she creates the illusion of being almost vacuously open. Un baiser s'il vous plaît is a movie that ultimately makes fun of fun, and does so by making us care about characters who appear at first to be merely incidental figures. Just as the camera pulls away from Judith's bed, so the film retracts from the lovers' dementia. Mr Mouret, at thirty-nine, is wise beyond his years. (7 April 2009)

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