Love, French Style

A tribute to old romantic comedies with a modern twist.

The nicest thing about love is that everybody loves it, and everybody does it. In a recent survey, in fact, it was found that not only do birds do it and bees do it, even fleas who have attained higher levels of education do it.

Thus, the movies--Western humanity's gateway to the soul--often take up the subject of love for the edification and entertainment of the great masses of lovers, lovers of lovers, and those who would love to love a lover.

The French, of course, invented both movies and love (or so they tell me) and thus may be the Western world's greatest resource on the subject of what they strangely call "amour." In that vein, young French superstar Audrey Tautou has made quite a name for herself by starring in Amelie, a film which shocked no one by being both French and about love, but shocked a lot of people by actually being good. Since then, not wishing to let the mantle of princess of love films fall from her shoulders and befoul itself upon the grimy earth, Tautou has deigned to star in He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not, the latest film d'amour to hit our barbarous shores.

Starting off with title credits that call to mind such classics of the genre as Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not seems like yet another salute to the great romantic comedies of the late '50s. Recently, this has become quite the fad among the Hollywood set, with Down With Love recreating the genre and Punch Drunk Love satirizing it.

He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not, however, uses the elements of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day era to illuminate the mind of young Angélique (Tautou), who is madly in love with Loïc, a doctor who lives next door to her. Spurning the advances of a handsome young med student, she devotes all her energy to the married Loïc, only to ultimately find that he cannot return her love.

Or so it seems. About halfway through the movie, the film stops suddenly, rewinds, and begins again from Loïc's perspective. Each scene with Loïc is replayed, but the context is radically altered, and even the meanings of individual words seem to change drastically. This alteration of perspective was hardly invented by He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not's director, Laetitia Colombani, but she uses it expertly here, so that what was a love story becomes something entirely different.

It would be churlish of me to give away too much about the second half, and if there's one thing I hate, it's churlishness. Nonetheless, I can say that while the first half of the film makes it seem that Loïc simply doesn't care for Angélique as much as she cares for him, the second half shows that interpretation doesn't do justice to their relationship, which, while very different for Loïc, is nonetheless tremendously intense and important for him.

In order to make this work, the entire film needed to have a cohesive artistic sense, and director Colombani largely succeeds with that. Her greatest asset is Tautou, whose enormous eyes always make her look like she feels love in a way that only people in Technicolor films are capable of feeling it. Her wardrobe accents this, giving her an updated Doris Day look that first mutes, and then exaggerates, the obsessiveness of her feelings. Her acting is also spot-on in its dippy romantic tone, though it's hard to say if Colombani is simply making use of Tautou's limited range, or Tautou is carefully creating a character who lives in a world that's more like a movie than real life.

Either way, she's perfect for the part, and offers strong contrast to the more naturalistic style of Samuel Le Bihan, who gets to make up for the incredibly dopey 18th-century superhero role he played in last year's Brotherhood of The Wolf. Le Bihan (whose name is French for "the Bihan") is becoming one of France's leading actors, meaning no one in the United States will ever know his name. Nonetheless, he's worth watching for his ability to do understated intensity. Although, come to think of it, "understated intensity" is pretty much the same thing as "being French," so maybe it's not such a big deal.

In any event, He Loves Me ...He Loves Me Not is well worth checking out, and not just to experience the comforts of an air-conditioned movie theater. It's got a strong sense of its roots in older romantic comedies, but instead of simply remaking the classics, it accepts their basic formula and then peels back the surface of the celluloid like Salvador Dali peeling back the surface of the water to reveal the bones of a dead dog. What more can you ask of 90 minutes of movie?

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