Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:13 pm 
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Light comedy based on the actors' real lives goes on too long

Charlotte Gainsbourg has starred in 'The Little Thief' in French and 'The Cement Garden' in English and in about 26 other movies. She's been in films at least since she was thirteen, so it seems surprising she's only 31. Her parents were Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, both French cinema and pop culture icons. In this movie with the straightforward title, 'My Wife Is an Actress,' her longtime companion and the father of their child, Yvan Attal, directs her and plays her husband in a story about an actress named Charlotte (who's famous) and her sports writer husband named Yvan (who's not), and the problems he has with this simple fact: she's a movie star; he's not.

It might have been more truthful to call the movie 'My Wife Is More Famous Than I Am,' because Yvan Attal isn't an unknown sports writer; he's a movie actor too, and he's been in 23 movies himself, including the excellent 'Love Without Pity' ('Un monde sans pitié, 1989), directed by Eric Rochant. He's just not as famous as Charlotte, and this is the first full-length film he's directed. What's it like to be constantly reminded that your wife is more popular and better known at the same thing that you do? That might be a more interesting subject, if less suitable for light romantic comedy, which is what 'Ma femme est une actrice' aims to be. Yvan Attal has cast himself as a kind of everyman, a little guy.

Regardless of your occupation, you might be jealous, if your wife were making out with actors in front of the camera all the time. That's what gets through to Yvan - the movie Yvan -- when an annoying fellow introduced to him at a bar by his tiresome obsessively Jewish sister, Nathalie (Noémie Lvovsky) keeps harping on the issue. If Ivan had cast himself as an actor, he might be more understanding; and in the movie, he takes acting lessons to gain more sympathy for Charlotte's career. His success auditioning as a flower bursting into bloom leads him into a little affair with a young aspiring actress - but the affair doesn't bloom; it just leads to a misunderstanding with Charlotte.

The base line feeling the movie deals with -- annoyance at having a famous movie star wife -- comes though strongest in the early scenes when Charlotte and Yvan are going around Paris and she's constantly being asked for her autograph -- and he's not. It isn't good for his ego that while he can't reserve a table before midnight at a restaurant, if she comes on the phone there's one ready at nine.

The jealousy Yvan feels about Charlotte's playing nude love scenes is a concern that goes deeper, but this is developed indirectly, by having Charlotte get bothered by the idea herself after talking to Yvan, then making a fuss about it at Pinewood Studios in England, leading to a colorful scene. While the London film is being shot, Yvan keeps going back and forth on the train to visit her. This is where his 'sports writer' role evaporates. He exists only as a jealous husband. Eventually he has an encounter with his wife's British costar, an older actor with sex appeal -- "John" - Terrence Stamp. Perhaps there is nothing more in danger of seeming inauthentic, or more difficult to make interesting, than essentially playing yourself, as Gainsbourg and Stamp, and to a lesser extent Attal, are doing here.

I remembered Charlotte Gainsbourg as a spoiled, pouting creature, and was afraid I wouldn't want to see her as herself. In fact she's charming, light as air, always conveying the impression of the smooth professional, and it's fascinating to watch somebody who can act as fluently in English as she can in French. It's an extra attraction to see Terence Stamp playing an aging English actor. But he's so laid back about his courtship of Charlotte that all the energy goes out of the scenes he's in.

Nathalie, the ultra-Jewish sister, becomes the movie's biggest annoyance. She seems to be present to make us aware of the fact that Yvan's Jewish (Attal was born in Tel Aviv), a fact that has nothing to do with his character. Nathalie has a 'goy' husband and she's pregnant. They are constantly arguing about whether the husband should get circumcised and the baby, if a boy, should be. A tired enough issue, made more so by its constant repetition. This running unfunny joke is made even less funny by the fact that Nathalie, the pregnant woman, always has a cigarette in her hand or in her mouth, and continues to smoke like a chimney even with the newborn baby in the room. Another annoyance of this movie is that it contains some homophobic and anti-Arab remarks, and they're not ironic, they're just there.

The tousled haired Yvan is appealing enough to arouse sympathy for his plight - at first. His character has only one note, sung over and over. The movie lasts only 95 minutes, but seems about 35 minutes too long.

'My Wife Is an Actress' begins well and deserves credit for approaching its topic head-on, without any dodges other than Yvan's becoming a 'sports writer' rather than a less famous actor. The problem is attacked persistently, but there's no solution found. One ends with the feeling that this was a kind of therapy for Yvan Attal. He does get pretty close to his subject. Perhaps he was too close to it already. If he'd gotten any closer, things might have gotten nasty.

August 5, 2002

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