Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 22, 2011 1:02 pm 
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Four way spouse-swopping

Two Parisian couples agree to swap partners in Cordier’s sophomore efffort, which continues the theme of the complications of partner-sharing that he gave a class twist to in his youth-oriented debut Cold Showers/Douches froides (2005). Again there is a certain lack of depth in the lead characters, and this time the film is marred by a somewhat aimless trajectory and multiple finale. But Happy Few has the attraction of a well known and experienced cast including Marina Foïs, Roschdy Zem, Nicolas Duvauchelle, and Élodie Bouchez. The focus on adult couples rather than adolescents will make the film appeal to more mature audiences. There is a titillation value too, since there are sensual moments as well as graphically sexual ones. But Happy Few isn't really meant to be primarily sexy or witty. Strange and elementary as the question may be, Cordier actually is interested in whether wife- and husband-swapping can work. Of course it doesn't, not for long, even here.

Here's what seems to happen. Rachel (Foïs) meets Vincent (Duvauchelle) at her jewelry-making studio when he comes to check on a web design. They're attracted to each other, and she invites him to bring his wife Teri (Bouchez) to have dinner and meet her husband Franck (Zem), an acupressure and Feng Shui guru who writes large paperback guidebooks to Asian arts. Teri does interpreting, or aims to, and speaks English and in her younger days she made it to the Olympics gymnastics competition. That's the last we get of their identities and occupations. The couples have kids and play squash and table tennis. At the get-acquainted dinner, Franck begins to finger Teri's vertebrae, and before long they kiss. The others look on without disapproval. Before long the swap has been made. As time goes on, the two couples establish a routine of frequently having sex with each others' spouses. Meanwhile they still manage to maintain their previous lives, households, and responsibilities. It's fun for a while, until Rachel starts setting limits and then eventually calls a halt to the whole experiment.

Actually there is a deception involved, because it turns out one side of the swap was happening before they all four got together, and so we, the viewers, have been deceived too. This hardly constitutes an exciting development. If anything it simply deflates the already limp balloon.

In fact Cold Showers had more going for it plot-wise. Cordier's first film focused on a working-class youth and judo star who becomes involved in a three-way with his girlfriend and a competitor who comes from privilege. We are drawn into the protagonist's struggle with identity, class, and values and the film gains a conventional but effective structure from focusing on high school finals and a big match in which the two boys are involved.

Happy Few is, as they say, a process rather than an event. Once Franck and Teri are a sexual, romantic couple and Vincent and Rachel are another such pairing, things get confused, because the new relationships cut into the old ones, which they are not about to give up. At one absurd moment, they are all sending cell phone photos of the sky to their new lovers, forgetting that will annoy their spouses. And when Rachel comes home and finds Franck and Teri asleep, nude, in each other's arms, she's not pleased. They also have to try to hide their misbehavior from their preteen kids. As with Cold Showers, there is bold nudity of both sexes, though the bodies are less newly minted this time. It all comes to seem rather pointless and silly, and in need of some old-fashioned secrecy and deception to add spice -- as well as more passion, more style, and more panache.

As Vincent, Duvauchelle is the only lover who seems genuinely interested -- in his new, older woman Rachel (Foïs). It never seems clear what Bouchez sees in Zem or vice versa: Feng Shui? The sad fact is that since there's little to do but look at bodies after a while, Duvauchelle and Foïs are good to look at but (partly the dp's fault) Zem is too ugly and Bouchez too scrawny to be easy on the eyes. Then the relationship between Vincent and Rachel is spoiled for us when Vincent starts pointlessly smacking Rachel around and banging her hard. When Rachel asks Franck to hit her while they're having sex we don't know if we should laugh or cringe. Either way, the lack of depth in the character development here -- a process dropped in favor of nude romps -- is stunning.

The ending is clumsy enough. Rachel calls a halt, and they all seem to agree the swapping can't continue. Yet they also seem (in some of the pointless voice-overs) to think they can't live without each other as a foursome. What finally happens remains vague. The writing of Cordier and his co-author Julie Peyr seems poorly thought out at times. It might have been better if the audience was let in on the deception from the start and was able to see the deceivers' scheme slowly go awry. There were some doubts about Cordier after his first film particularly as to the writing, which Happy Few doesn't altogether put to rest.

Happy Few (the original title of the French language film), poster subtitle "Aimez qui vous voulez," "Love whomever you like," opened in Paris September 15, 2010 and got good reviews in some sophisticated places -- Le Monde, Libération, Les Inrockuptibles. But Cahieers du Cinéma and Télérama were disappointed as I was. Seen and reviewed as part of the March 3-14, 2011 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema presented by Unifrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center at three venues, the Walter Reade Theater uptown, the IFC Center downtown, and BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.

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