Every summer, Seattleites tired of a shitty movie season are thrown a bone in the form of a few French releases that come out earlier in other places. The films breeze in on a promise of sophistication and substance amid the trash pile of steroid-pumped blockbusters and predigested rom-coms at the multiplex. It doesn't matter if the French movies are any good. They show sleek-looking Euros sipping little black coffees and glasses of red wine, having lots of guilt-free sex, and purring sweet Gallic nothings in each others' ears. It's enough to whet any self-respecting art-house appetite.
The next few weeks offer a double serving of French cinema, though don't be fooled: The little cream puff of romantic noir is more filling than the undercooked period biopic served on a bed of seven Césars (the French equivalent of Oscars).
Culinary metaphors aside, Anne Fontaine's The Girl from Monaco, a tricky, darkly comic thriller masquerading as an escapist trifle, centers on a love triangle between Bertrand, a successful but dithering middle-aged defense lawyer (Fabrice Luchini) in Monaco on a high-profile case; Christophe, the younger, virile bodyguard (French-Arab actor Roschdy Zem) assigned to protect Bertrand; and Audrey (newcomer Louise Bourgoin), an even younger and very sexy weather girl who once dated the bodyguard but who now, to everyone's surprise, has her sights set on the lawyer.
As in Dry Cleaning, her best-known feature here, Fontaine builds erotic suspense deftly; you're never sure who's trying to screw, or screw over, whom—and who's nursing actual feelings. She also nails the bewitching effect that youth and beauty, here personified by Audrey, can have on the insecure and aging, embodied by Bertrand. Better yet, the director, working from her own script, shows us how that spell can go from liberating to imprisoning. As Bertrand's feelings for Audrey grow increasingly obsessive, he turns to Christophe for advice, and the focus shifts to the odd-couple intimacy between the two men: a cautious, cerebral thinker and his confident, instinctively physical protector.
The Girl from Monaco is so briskly plotted (a compact 90 minutes) and soaked in bright Mediterranean blues and yellows that it's easy to overlook the sharp, even feminist observations made about male friendship and sexuality. The three main characters are all types, but they're uncommonly well-drawn, richly played types, and Fontaine blurs their outlines enough to keep us on our toes: Audrey, for all her oversexed daftness, is a force of nature whose ambition and carnal boldness keep her out of any man's grasp; Bertrand, the disciplined intellectual, is nearly undone by a sexual awakening as dewy-eyed as any adolescent ingénue's; and Christophe's military stoicism and clipped baritone delivery mask passions that move the story from frothy bedroom farce into more unsettling Hitchcockian territory.
Indeed, The Girl from Monaco is the rare entertainment whose twists and turns seem driven by plausible emotions churning just beneath the characters' skins, rather than predetermined plot mechanics. And so Fontaine teases us toward a perversely poignant coda that recasts everything that came before as a love story of an unexpected sort.
An odd love story is also at the heart of another upcoming French release, Séraphine, Martin Provost's often lovely but frustratingly academic biopic about the unsung early-20th-century painter Séraphine Louis. Many directors have labored to convey the complexities of the visual-art process, as well as the train wreck it often causes in the artist's personal life, and most have come up with clichés. Even less-awful American efforts of the last two decades have ranged from plodding (Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo) to half-baked (Julian Schnabel's Basquiat and Ed Harris's Pollock).
Séraphine fares only slightly better, but its flaws come packaged in another language, so most critics—foreign-cinema fetishists that they are—won't notice. The movie traces the rise to recognition and descent into madness of Séraphine (Yolande Moreau), a religious, literally tree-hugging eccentric who cleans houses by day and creates vibrant flower and fruit portraits by night. The other major character is Séraphine's employer Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a gay German art dealer who alternately champions her and leaves her high and dry until her death.
Séraphine's was a quiet life, and the movie is refreshingly free of the chronological parade of "big" moments that typically clog these stories. If anything, it's too restrained, too discreetly filmed, too gently paced. The outsiders' bond between Séraphine and Wilhelm—a shared passion for painting and their separate, unfulfilled sex lives sublimated into friendship—is the most unusual thing in the movie, but it's often shoved aside by long shots of Séraphine puttering around acting batty. We get the point: Artistic genius comes from mysteries of the soul, as well as consciously applied talent. Thoughtful as it is, the movie lacks the poetry or point of view to see this idea through with force.
Moreau, with her pudgy Cheshire Cat face, seems lit from within as Séraphine's eyes widen in inspiration and narrow in disappointment. And there are several moments when Provost gets at her essence—a shot of Séraphine gorging on berries off the bush, a sequence in which she shows her work and soaks in various reactions. But he never stays close, opting instead to respectfully ration out his subject's life story in graceful, somewhat remote vignettes. Séraphine is a fantastic weirdo of a character in a movie a bit too normal to do her justice.