The movie opens in a busy Paris train station, with panicked characters in close-up rushing back and forth, as we hear the private biography of a 76-year-old Frenchman off a DAT machine as voice-over. This man, Jean-Baptiste Emmerich (also played by Trintignant), is the twin brother of the aforementioned shoe salesman and a painter of "moderate fame" ("He was no Picasso, but a painting of his will trade for a TV--a really good TV"), who has just passed away. His Parisian friends are gathering to catch a train to Limoges (his hometown, and the Pittsburgh of France), where he has asked to be buried.
During the train ride, the film takes shape. We learn who loves whom, who was recently dumped, who is pregnant, and who desperately needs a cookie. The relationship of each character to the dead painter is revealed in snatches and glimpses, via the playing out of these dramas among the living. It is the way these dramas develop--the way they're able to talk about relationships, or hate each other, or simply lust--that lands us squarely in the land of French Cinema.
The soundtrack, however, is not French. It is composed of British triphop, American soul, and rock--Björk, Massive Attack, Portishead, the Doors, Nina Simone, Cake (doing, of all things, a cover of the '70s disco classic "I Will Survive"), Jeff Buckley, plus bloodless versions of "That's Life" and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." Paradoxically, this abundance of American and British pop songs, plopped into scenes thematically and often at cross purposes to the drama, ultimately makes the movie very French. Just as American "bistros" will scatter French street signs and posters willy-nilly throughout their burgundy rooms, this accomplished export deploys a wallpaper of American pop culture (beyond the songs, there are also direct borrowings from Douglas Sirk and A Nightmare on Elm Street) to frame the French ruminations on death, family, love, lust, and gender.
The movement of plot ("the allegro staccato of the train, the largo in the cemetery, the allegro furioso in the family home," according to a Patrice Chéreau interview), the positioning of important relationships (unplanned homosexual lovers with the future ahead of them; heterosexual lovers with no plans or direction), and the positioning of important characters (the surviving twin brother is a conservative shoe salesman; the dead twin is a freethinking painter)--all of this forms an elaborate, interwoven pattern that broadens and sprawls as the film advances. While these rigorous interweavings (and the use of the soundtrack to provide what amounts to pop leitmotifs for many of the characters) smell strongly of Wagner, the constant squall and shriek of angry French lovers stinks of something more dissonant and difficult, say, the work of Schoenberg's disciple Alban Berg (whose operas Lulu and Wosseck Chéreau has directed).
As with much of the opera out of the Vienna school, which tends to be beautiful and dreadful all at once, one is both drawn to and repulsed by Chéreau's characters. Watching Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi, as she-devil junkie Claire, tremble and shriek her way through a cold-turkey day pained us like needles plunged repeatedly into our eyes. (She is to be applauded for this convincing and taxing portrayal.) Vincent Perez eased our nerves with his portrayal of sedate and sexy transsexual Frederic/Viviane (whose performance would have been a complete success had Chéreau not shown us Viviane's pubescent tits and soon-to-be split penis in a gratuitous shower scene). Dreamy, druggy Sylvain Jacques is compelling as young Bruno, though the director's immoderate attraction to the sensual actor lands Jacques firmly in the cross-hairs of a relentlessly romanticizing camera that is more appropriate for some high-budget "down and dirty" fashion shoot.
Then there is François (Pascal Greggory), who, despite being unexpectedly dumped by his lover, maintains a cool head throughout the film; he never shouts, breaks down, needs drugs, or sheds a tear. Impeccably dressed, François is the thread that draws the film together. His even-handed, if melancholy, regard touches on each friend and lover in turn. From the movie's opening (which finds him going over the last caustic interview with the dead painter) to the brazenly symphonic close (François exiting Limoges by taxi, while observing through the cab's sparkly windows each pair of united/reunited lovers resuming their paths away from this brief tragedy, this rupture), he is the tonal center, the steady bass of this dense, multi-voiced, passionate, operatic movie of modern life in faraway France.
Matthew Stadler and Charles Mudede composed this review one sentence at a time, alternating sentences in much the same way that John Ashbery and James Schuyler wrote the novel A Nest of Ninnies.