Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 11, 2012 8:34 am 
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A dragged-out misunderstanding

The beautiful veteran Italian film actress Laura Monrante has finally chosen to make her debut as a director with a rom-com -- in French. The so-so The Cherry on the Cake/La Cerise sur le gâteau depicts the amorous confusion of Amanda (Morante), a fifty-something woman living in Paris reputed to have man issues. Anthrophobic, her friends call her. It takes seemingly forever -- though the actual running time is only eighty-three minutes -- for Amanda to realize the nice guy she's met at a New Year's Eve party, sad-eyed Antoine (Pascal Elbé) isn't gay, and they can be more than just friends. Is it worth it? What might have been funny or psychologically enlightening is neither. This movie kicks around the same limited idea for its entire duration without ever getting anywhere with it. Cherry on the Cake has the usual Parisian movie gloss to make it attractive to arthouse film-goers, there are some sweet and poetic moments, and Morante and Elbé are almost a handsome couple. But those things are not enough since the screenplay is one-track and awlward and the movie never establishes a rhythm. Nobody on screen appears to be having much fun and you probably won't either.

The setup is clumsy and confuses the issue. In the opening scene Amanda's current boyfriend Hubert (Frédéric Pierrot) botches a tête-à-tête birthday dinner for her completely. His present is a fancy cigarette lighter when only recently she's declared she's giving up smoking. A little cake comes with a big cherry on top -- and while she's at the lady's room, he eats the cherry. Problem is, discomfort with this apparent loser doesn't seem like anthrophobia, just good sense, and no other examples of Amanda's man aversion are provided. Then comes the December 31st party and the friendship develops between Amanda and Antoine, whose extreme reticence keeps him, for the duration of the movie, from explaining to her that she's mistaken about his being gay and he's really in love with her. Her friends seem to think she and Antoine hit it off so well because of the misunderstanding, which makes the relationship safe for her.

This goes on, and on, and on. Some artificial suspense is created when Hubert's apartment-hunting efforts lead to a real find. He and Amanda have talked about moving in together; the cherry and lighter incidents apparently weren't that serious. He has discovered a beautiful, quiet place looking out on the water, with a fireplace and plenty of room, all she dreamed of having. She has to make up her mind in four days.

I wish she'd taken the apartment, which is wonderful, and forgotten about Antoine. It seems a better bet. But Amanda really seems averse to commitment, more than to men.

Amanda and Antoine's "friendship" is on and off. He remains too shy to break the misunderstanding but it sometimes becomes so uncomfortable for him that he just stops answering her her calls. At other times they are often together, dinners, movies, walks, long late night web chats, the lot. You'd think she'd have sense enough to realize there's more than a gay-straight pal thing going on here, but the screenplay stagnates. In fact Amanda and Antoine are so dumb you want to shake them. And it's not funny. They both go around wearing such dreary expressions whether together or apart that it seems uncertain whether they'll ever be happy whatever happens. Hubert and Amanda lose the dream apartment. Hubert gets pretty fed up with Amanda, and suggests she get a dog.

Antoine pretends he's sick, with the help of a gay friend, to get to spend more time with Amanda. His shrink tells him to spill the beans to her about being straight, but he still can't do it. Would anyone this spineless be a fit lover? But of course if handled with real wit, this could all have been funny. Only it isn't.

Amanda's agency works out a deal with an oil millionaire, Mr. Faysal -- played by an Italian called Ennio Fantastichini, who speaks English with a French accent. Apparently an Arab actor couldn't be found. Or maybe his fakeness is meant to be funny. It just seems cheesy.

Finally when Amanda is about to stop seeing Antoine for some reason -- again -- he grabs her and kisses her, the charade ends, and they become lovers. A final scene suggests that's not going to work out either. Are we surprised?

Laura Morante is fluent in French, though it might have been more fun if she had a heavy Italian accent. But above all it might be better to leave French romantic comedies to the French. Morante and her co-writer Daniele Costantini have made a hash of this. The stiff, grim Pascal Elbé seems a poor choice for the male lead. He and Laura are two sad sacks. Isabelle Carré makes little impression as Amanda's best friend, Florence.

La Cerise sur le gâteau opened in Italy in April 2012 and in France in early May and was shown at Montreal. French reviews were poor (Allociné press rating 2.1; viewers rating even worse, 1.9). Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Society's New Italian Cinema Series, Nov. 11-18, 2012 for which it is the closing night film, showing Sunday, Nov. 18, 6:30 pm and 9:15 pm at Landmark’s Embarcadero Theater in San Francisco.

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