French Delight

Apres Vous leading man, director spin gold out of the seemingly silly

When you think of French actor Daniel Auteuil, you think first of his memorable roles in weighty films, such as TheGirlontheBridge,Sade,MaSaisonPréferée,L'adversaire,LaVeuvedeSt.Pierre,and his breakout performances as the scheming farmer Ugolin in JeandeFloretteand its sequel, Manondessources.

Through these and many other pictures, Auteuil uses his bedroom eyes and subtle expressions to convey whatever's required of his character: depression, elation, masochism, valiance. It's made him a heartthrob in his homeland and a favorite right up there with countryman Gerard Depardieu among world-cinema geeks.

Auteuil wore the face of an amiable sad sack pretending to be gay and fighting off macho man Depardieu's affections in Francis Veber's TheCloseta few years back, and while that comedy got mixed reviews, Auteuil's performance was not criticized. Indeed, for years before 1986's JeandeFlorette,Auteuil had cut his teeth on a string of forgettable comedies, and the comic timing he acquired along the way—along with that damn craggy mug—makes Pierre Salvadori's light dessert AprèsVousa must-see summer rom-com.

It shouldn't work as well as it does, given the storyline, which seems better cooked up for a Venezuelan soap opera or, worse, Nora Ephron. (Note to Hollywood: resist the urge to make an American version of AprèsVousstarring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Please!)Auteuil is Antoine, a maitre d' who is helpful beyond the job description, doting on unappreciative patrons, picking up the slack for laggard co-workers and serving the every whim of the demanding owners. All work and no play make Antoine's love life unfulfilling. Oh, he's got the attractive, attentive girlfriend, but she's the only one investing the time into, as they say in every movie but this one, "taking the relationship to the next level." And so, as we first meet him, Antoine is on the verge of making things right, running out the door of his chaotic restaurant to keep his date with Christine (Maryline Canto).

Unfortunately for Antoine, some despondent guy's hung himself in a tree in a park that's positioned between the restaurant and the site of that late-night rendezvous. Antoine's got a choice: help the man (who doesn't want to be helped) or run off to his long-suffering lover. Tonight, as he would any night, Antoine chooses serving the complete stranger, not just pulling miserable loser Louis (José Garcia) down from that tree but staying up all night on suicide watch, allowing Louis to stay in his flat for weeks, getting to the root of Louis' pain (a love lost) and making it his life's mission to make Louis a better man so that he can win back the girl who unknowingly put Louis in the tree in the first place.

But this bout with Good Samaritanism begins to chip away at Antoine's personal and professional life, and soon you're sitting in the theater with the same morbid curiosity you get rubbernecking a traffic collision. Louis' ascension matches the speed of Antoine's fall, and just when it appears Antoine can right his sinking ship after stumbling upon Louis' ex Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain, world-weary andradiant) and setting in motion a re-matchmaking scheme, along comes the biggest unforeseen complication of all.

This whole sordid affair could collapse were it not for the believability the actors bring to their parts, most notably Auteuil, who, despite being a big-time French actor, didn't just have me believing he was a maitre d'—hell, I was trying to remember which restaurant he'd served me in. Amazingly, he conveys earnestness and vulnerability and deceit all at once, and as effortlessly as that master of romantic comedies, Cary Grant.

It helps greatly that Auteuil has the perfect comic foil/partner going for him in Garcia, whose moon-shaped face and weight-of-the-world-on-his-shoulders posture make you at first pity him—before his wounds heal and he slyly takes advantage of his generous benefactor. It was not star Auteuil but Garcia who produced the loudest howls at the screening I attended when Louis gets revenge on his nearsighted grand-mère after he learns she was responsible for making Blanche leave.

But credit must also go to Salvadori, who makes a radical departure from his dark thriller of 2000, LesMarchandsdesable(The Sandmen).Salvadori paces this comedy brilliantly, throws in some smart adult (but not adults-only) touches, and keeps scenes that seem headed into the depths of screwball implausibility from reaching that destination just in the nick of time.

APRèS VOUS WAS DIRECTED BY PIERRE SALVADORI, PRODUCED BY PHILIPPE MARTIN, AND WRITTEN BY BENOÎT GRAFFIN, DAVID LEÒTARD AND SALVADORI. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS UNIVERSITY, IRVINE. SATURDAY EVENING, TO HERALD THE FILM'S ARRIVAL, THE THEATER SERVES FREE FRENCH FOOD, DISPLAYS FRENCH WINE AND GIVES AWAY FRENCH MUSIC AND DINNER WITH AN ACTUAL FRENCH SPEAKER!

 
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