Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 30, 2004 8:43 pm 
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They lived happily ever after and it all got kind of muddled (2004)

The team of Yvan Ittal and his real life wife Charlotte Gainsbourg are together again in this movie as they were in Ma femme et une actrice (My Wife Is an Actress, 2001), this time to make a combo buddy/relationship picture ("They Were Married and Had Lots of Children") that uses romantic comedy as a rough format to examine the conflicts between fidelity and sex.

Let’s emphasize the word “rough.” Yttal is a garrulous entertainer, not an orderly constructor of stories. We begin with three men. Vincent (Attal) and his pals George (Alain Chabat) and Fred (Alain Cohen) all work together in a BMW showroom. Each craves something in the others’ love lives that he lacks. Fred is a freewheeling Casanova who boasts of his conquests but pines for a family. George is loyal to his feminist wife but constantly fights with her and longs for peace. Both Fred and George envy Vincent, happily married to the charming Gabrielle (Gainsbourg). But Vincent isn’t satisfied either, or at least he doesn’t know it, because -- it turns out -- he has a secret mistress.

This scheme work is complicated enough – double life, triple set of buddies, multiple females -- to require orderly presentation, but that's not director/writer Attal's forte, and it isn’t merely the situations that get messy but also the storytelling. Attal also takes a bit too long to arrive at clear delineations of certain basic plot elements, notably Vincent’s affair, for us to care deeply about the characters throughout the story’s 100 minutes of screen time. The film isn’t ever really sure what it’s about, -- whether it’s a tale of three buddies, or a comparison of Vincent’s and his wife’s points of view. In time Vincent does come to recognize how unfair his behavior is to both the women in his life, and we spend some time following them around, especially Gabrielle. An effort is made in the story to be nice to everybody, but we never know where our sympathies should ultimately lie. Luckily, though, we’ve had fun along the way, and the movie is nothing if not lighthearted.

Yttal’s idea of how to resolve conflicts is part reality TV, part 50’s Hollywood comedy. There’s much throwing of water at each other and even one scene, celebrated in posters, where Vincent and Gabrielle spray whipped cream and throw ketchup, eggs and other kitchen comestibles at each other, winding up in a spectacular pillow fight with the requisite feather storm, followed by good sex.

There are contretemps -- one involving the inevitable cell phones -- where Gabrielle just barely misses encountering the mistress, and we hear the mistress justify her secondary position to her own mother -- in a nice restaurant, of course: this is all the stuff of glossy bourgeois comedy, but without the edge that might have been provided by the direction of Claude Chabrol or the acting of Sergi Lopez or Isabelle Huppert. Eventually Gabrielle “senses” what’s going on and goes on a vacation trip to “separate herself’ a bit, whereupon an English guy comes on to her at a pool -- giving Ms. Gainsbourg a chance to show off her bilingual abilities, as she did more amply in My Wife Is an Actress because of the presence of Terence Stamp.

This film has life and charm, beginning with the ebullient Yttal and the graceful Gainsbourg, and charisma to spare: the still glamourous Anouk Aimée plays Vincent’s mother; Aurore Clément, his mistress’s mother; his father is the excellent director (and this film's producer) Claude Berri; the couple’s little boy Antoine is played by a young dynamo called Ruben Marx; and Johnny Depp, still wearing the stylish frames he had on in Secret Window, has a cameo which he typically handles with the utmost ease and sex appeal. But the characters in the end have drawn more life from the actors’ performances than from their written dialogue, and the director has relied again on certain My Wife Is an Actress devices– the foreign star’s arrival at a dull moment; the trip abroad to bring things to a head. Like his Italian contemporary Gabriele Muccino, Yttal is obsessed with the desire for rebellion in middle class people, and like Muccino, he resolves this problem with conventional affirmations: "They married and had lots of children" is the unironic recommended goal. But unlike the fluid and energetic films of Muccino, Yttal’s, due to loose construction and a weakness for carrying certain jokes too far, contain longeurs where things drift, lose their point, strain our patience.

Charlotte Gainsbourg imbues Gabrielle with a zest for life that is noteworthy, given that she suspects her husband of having an affair. But then again, who wouldn’t love life after a chance encounter with a stranger who looks and acts just like Johnny Depp? But the trouble is Yttal’s passion for Gainsbourg is all too evident: he doesn’t give Vincent’s affair enough credibility -- make the mistress interesting, or long-suffering, or important enough.

There’s plenty of humor, but it’s based on rapid-fire talk, too much to capture in subtitles, so if you're not fluent in French a certain percentage of this film is going to elude you.

Again, as in Ma femme est une actrice, you have to wonder whether it isn’t weird to play husband and wife in a movie with your actual husband or wife. The previous film dealt directly with the issue of having a movie star spouse more famous than yourself. This time that touchy theme has been dropped in favor of a more universal one – man’s discomfort with monogamy. But sometimes again the line between fiction and reality is broached, if not crossed. This is a famous couple that seems to relish living in public.

It appears unlikely Yttal will ever make an orderly, fully successful film. He sure knows how to entertain and have a good time; too bad he can’t combine those virtues with the good writing and logical construction necessary to farce.


(Seen in Paris, September 2004. US release date undetermined.)

©Chris Knipp 2004

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