By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 10, 2019)
Humorist Matt Groening once defined “cinema’s greatest paradox” thusly: “Sex is funny. The French are a funny people. Then why is it that no French sex comedies are funny?”
In my observation, over decades spent sitting in dark auditoriums munching on popcorn while gazing up at flickering images, sex comedies with subtitles have never struck me to be any less funny, nor particularly funnier than…sex comedies without them. It’s a wash.
In other words, Groening had me at “sex is funny.”
In my review of the late French director Eric Rohmer’s 1996 (wait for it) “sex comedy” A Summer’s Tale, I described it as “a movie where the characters spend more screen time dissecting the complexities of male-female relationships than actually experiencing them.” I think that also serves as a good working definition of most French sex comedies.
That is not to say that there are no “good” French sex comedies. Take A Faithful Man (aka “L’homme fidele”). It is very good. And it is very funny. And it is very short. Although it clocks in at 72 minutes, I’m guessing A Faithful Man says more about life, love, and the pursuit of happiness than, say, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw does in 136 minutes. Granted, I haven’t reviewed Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw-but seeing it took in $79,083,205 in its first week, it’ll limp by without my 2 cents.
Fashioning a narrative with the brevity of a fable, writer-director-star Louis Garrel and his veteran co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Belle de Jour, That Obscure Object of Desire, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Return of Martin Guerre, et al) dive right in. In the opening scene, 30-something Parisian Abel (Garrel) gets dumped by his girlfriend Marianne (Laetitia Casta). The double whammy: she tells Abel 1) she is pregnant by his best friend Paul and 2) they’ve set a wedding date.
Abel takes this in with relative calm. Perhaps it’s shock. Perhaps he was expecting this; perhaps not. Perhaps… he’s French. He asks a pragmatic question: this is sudden; may he keep his stuff at the apartment for now? She suggests it would be best if he starts packing.
Marianne marries Abel’s friend Paul. 8 years pass; Paul (we are told) dies unexpectedly.
One thing leads to another, and Abel and Marianne are back together (it’s been an eventful 10 minutes). There are, of course, complications this time around. There is Marianne’s son Joseph (Joseph Engel), now a precocious 8-year old not quite ready to give Abel his stamp of approval. And there is the departed Paul’s little sister Eve (Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of Vanessa Paradis and Johnny Depp), now a comely child-woman who (it turns out) has been infatuated with Abel since she was knee-high to a sauterelle.
It’s a messy love triangle that would make Eric Rohmer proud. What ensues recalls Hannah and Her Sisters (especially in how characters provide first person exposition via voice-over) with a touch of Dangerous Liaisons (interestingly, co-writer Carrière’s screenwriting credits include Valmont, the 1989 adaptation from the same source novel).
Despite obvious influences, Garrel’s film is original, inventive and engaging. Casta and Depp are charming and charismatic, and Garrel’s performance as a malleable pushover perpetually confounded by the mysteries of amour reminded me of Francois Truffaut muse Jean-Pierre Léaud’s recurring “Antoine Doinel” character (particularly in Love on the Run). Cinematographer Irina Lubtchansky makes good use of the lovely Paris locales.
In a movie season I’ve been known to label “big, dumb and loud”, A Faithful Man could be that romantic late-summer getaway that the adults have been craving at the multiplex.