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La Doublure (The Valet)

Francis Veber's La Doublure is, for any connoisseur of French farce, a very special treat. It's one of those desserts, such as trifle, that's composed of numerous component treats. There is the very silly story. A philandering billionaire, Pierre (Daniel Auteuil) tries to hold on to his supermodel mistress, Elena (Alice Taglioni), but she wants to marry him, and to do this he will have to divorce his wife, Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas - I wonder if that's what she's called in France, where she lives and speaks perfect French). The hitch is that Christine controls sixty percent of the companies he heads. Elena has had it with Pierre's postponements. She rushes out of their lovenest and into the street. Pierre runs after her.

Meanwhile, as they say, François (Gad Elmaleh) is a parking valet. He has finally worked up the courage to buy a diamond and propose to Émilie (Virginie Ledoyen). Isn't that what he announced that he would do someday when the two were classmates - in kindergarten? The hitch is that Émilie regards François as "kid brother." Mortified, François leaves the table where he and Émilie are having lunch. Émilie does not run after him.

Although it's hard to believe that François's regular lunch spot and Pierre's bachelor pad are in the arrondissement - but what am I saying? This is pure farce. The apparent fact that they're in the same arrondissement is a joke - François's dejected path intercepts the agitated lovers, and the moment is captured by a paparazzo. François is rather out of the focus in the picture, but that doesn't prevent Pierre's lawyer, Maître Fox (Richard Berry), from cooking up a scheme to persuade Christine that Elena is "with the other guy" in the picture. Elena is induced to move into François's dump of a flat. She charges twenty million euros for the favor. François, once he has gotten over the shock, asks for a mere thirty-four thousand. That's what Émilie needs to pay off the loans on her new bookshop. (Isn't he sweet?)

For this viewer, the most sublime treat of all is Christine, at least as she's embodied by Ms Scott Thomas. Never has this great actress seemed more regal, more crisply self-assured - and that, I think, is saying something. She makes the very idea that Christine would fall for the lawyer's farce-within-the-farce simply sidesplitting. It's interesting to compare Christine to Lady Sylvia, in Robert Altman's Gosford Park. Sylvia is not a total bitch, but she's empty and bored. Christine is in contrast the Marschallin's younger sister.* (Once upon a time, Catherine Deneuve would have had a field day with this part, except they weren't making farces in those days. And Ms Deneuve couldn't have been any better than Ms Scott Thomas.) She can look at Pierre as if he's an idiot (which he is, to think that she believes him) and yet light her slight smile with a skeptical kindliness. At one point, Christine openly compliments Elena and François on their performances. When François says that he doesn't know what she's talking about, he's being honest, but Christine knows everything.

Christine knows, for example, that François's flat lacks curtains. This is what permits Pierre's people be sure that there's no hanky-panky. Christine decides that this gives Pierre an unfair advantage, so she sends in two lugs with brass rods and draperies that must have come out of one of the posher spare bedrooms in her hôtel particulier. They're some sort of luxurious fringed fabric, opulently striped in dark red and green. The mere sight of the muscle-y henchmen in their stubble and T-shirts fiddling with the draperies is a stitch. And the payoff is that, when Pierre hears about the curtains, his calm decision to give up Elena explodes in a burst of animal jealousy.

Daniel Autueil has become one of France's Everymen. Perhaps he's the one and only. He's especially good at playing reserved, slightly pathetic men. In La Doublure, however, he impersonates a powerful jerk who's badly in need of a fall. Happily, he and Mr Veber have the sense to clown it up. After all, who can have fun if there's a genuine creep in the room? When Pierre smiles at the women in his life, he overdoes the warmth of his asseverations - and then he wonders why they don't believe him. When he's angry - and he gets very angry, indeed, when François appears to have something genuine going with his new roommate - he nearly can't shout fast enough to keep up with his rage. Those curtains!

The romantic farce in which the younger characters find themselves is the usual concoction of deceptions and mistaken conclusions. François, the reluctant deceiver, finds that everyone regards him with heightened interest - even Émilie - once Elena starts hanging round his neck. Mr Elmaleh so successfully inhabits the role of a parking valet that his considerable good looks are mysteriously eclipsed, and it really does seem surprising that a gorgeous (and taller) supermodel would even be able to see him. Ms Ledoyen deploys her basso profundo while simultaneously fending off the advances of a vulpine mobile-phone entrepreneur while trying to digest the surprise of François's sudden new companion. The lovely Alice Taglioni has a wonderful time leading François through the charade, but she's also quite sweet when Elena learns that François is a real friend. Needless to say, a word from her about what François is really like is all it takes to kindle Émilie's requiting love. We don't even have to hear it.

As a sort of echo farce, Francois's mother (Michèle Garcia) is not at all surprised that her boy has attracted the attention of two lovely women, while his father (Michel Jonasz) is flabbergasted. Completing this comic trio is Michel Aumont, playing the hypochondriacal doctor who is also Émilie's father. His look of irritation when a patient with bronchitis coughs in his ear is a mini-comedy on its own.

It would not be wrong to call La Doublure a suspense film. When Pierre assures Maître Foix that he sees reason at last and is no longer going to allow a passing affair to endanger his business career, we know that this attitude will have to change somehow before the scene is over, but we don't know just how it's going to be changed, or when, or how far Pierre's reaction will take him. When Christine barges into Pierre's office and responds to his offer of a second honeymoon in Venice by suggesting that their hotel suite be at least as grand as the one they had the first time, we wonder what the devil she is up to. We will find out in a minute, we suspect, but what will it turn out to be? (April 2007)

*Sorry about the mixed media. I refer to a character in the opera Der Rosenkavailier.

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