The bearable lightness of being French

Leave it to the French to make a musical comedy about AIDS -- and to have it actually work.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published April 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

This bittersweet and ultimately irresistible Parisian confection has an oddly
displaced, almost timeless quality. At first I thought that directors Olivier
Ducastel and Jacques Martineau were being deliberately vague, or that
perhaps the film was set in 1988 -- given its "this is pop" oversaturated
palette, the summery pastels of Virginie Ledoyen's wardrobe and the Act-Up marchers in their black leather jackets. Making a musical comedy at all in
the late '90s implies a commitment to fantasy and a kind of willful,
old-fashioned eccentricity. But I think the real explanation is simpler:
It's French. The rest of the capitalist world from Vancouver to
Budapest may become a cheerful infoblur of cell phones, baggy jeans and
overpriced pasta dishes, but France, for better or worse, will always be
peculiar. And as it gingerly walks the line between weightlessness and
gravity, between cloying and charming, "Jeanne and the Perfect Guy" is
nothing if not peculiar.

Though it's not sung all the way through like "The Umbrellas of
"Jeanne" is an avowed attempt to bring the winsome,
tragicomic sensibility of Jacques Demy's classic to bear on
contemporary subject matter. Almond-eyed Mathieu Demy, son of the great
director (and the equally important filmmaker Agnhs Varda), even plays
Olivier, the "perfect guy" who becomes our untamable heroine's first
true passion. With her lovely, heart-shaped face, skin the color of
eucalyptus honey and luminous smile, Ledoyen is a veritable angel
of randy innocence. In the great tradition of French film inginues, Jeanne
splits the difference between feminism and misogyny -- she's an
independent young woman fully in charge of her own sexuality, and
she's the lithe, athletic nymphet of a million midlife-crisis fantasies.

As with any musical, your reaction to "Jeanne and the Perfect Guy" will
largely depend on how well you tolerate the songs by composer Philippe
Miller (with lyrics by Martineau, who also wrote the script). I was on the
fence through the whole movie; Miller's attempts to introduce
Afropop, Arabic music and other "exotic" influences -- as in a gratuitous
liberal-guilt number sung by the black cleaning crew in Jeanne's
office building -- are particularly embarrassing. When he stays closer to the
sweet-and-sour French cabaret tradition, however, the results are often
affecting and lovely. Early in the film, Jeanne's gay friend Frangois
(the lantern-jawed, wry-faced Jacques Bonnaffi) sings a haunting lament
for his dead lover and his own pariah status as an AIDS widow. Jeanne
doesn't pay much attention, but that song's spirit weaves through the film like a tiny,
cold current of melancholy, finally erupting in her heartbreaking, almost
Puccini-esque final duet with Olivier. (Most of the actors do their own singing, but
Ledoyen is dubbed by Elise Caron.)

If you were pitching this movie to a Hollywood executive, you might tell him
you were putting a hornier, less neurotic Ally McBeal in the cast of "Sammy
and Rosie Get Laid" and sending them to Montmartre with songs by Jacques
Brel. Jeanne is a working girl from lower-middle suburbia who spends her
days answering the phone in the sterile, modernist lobby of a travel agency,
and her nights and weekends auditioning candidates for le gargon
(a self-consciously outmoded phrase that might be better
translated as "the wonderful fella"). She's bored by the upscale bistros her yuppie
beau Jean-Baptiste (Fridiric Gorny) frequents -- though
one of them provides the setting for a luscious, crimson-lit tango -- and the
hunky, nameless messenger boy (Laurent Arcaro) is no more than a
fuckbuddy. But when she accidentally sits on Olivier's lap on a Mitro
train, the chemistry is more than physical, as she tells her vicariously
thrilled sister (Valirie Bonneton) in a giddy song-and-dance number amid
the bland Formica of a cheap Chinese restaurant.

When Olivier tells Jeanne, well after their first sexual encounter, that he has
a profoundly personal reason for attending Act-Up rallies, Ledoyen perfectly
captures the incomprehension of a young person whose life allows no room
for gravity or disaster. "That's OK -- we used a condom," she says
blankly, trying to flee from understandable rage or grief back into carefree
hedonism. As it gradually becomes clear that Olivier is much sicker than he
lets on, Jeanne has to balance the unfamiliar idea of irreparable loss
against her irrepressible appetite for life. To Ducastel and
Martineau's credit, they stay true to the blend of sentimentality and
cold realism that made Demy's films so distinctive. Jeanne wants to
believe that love is forever, that Olivier is "the perfect guy" and that she
can't live without him. What she learns is that, immeasurably painful
though it may be, she can.

If the film's narrative structure is unnecessarily operatic -- both
lovers confide in Frangois, though he doesn't know they're a
couple and neither realizes that the other knows him -- its
camerawork and composition are memorably seductive. Full of long, fluid
shots of Ledoyen rushing through the Parisian streets like a lascivious wood
sprite perennially late for assignations, "Jeanne and the Perfect Guy"
overflows with so much energy and emotion it'll win you over despite
its flaws. The American version has reportedly been edited down to focus on
the love affair, which may explain why all the characters except Jeanne,
Olivier and Frangois seem irrelevant. This is nonetheless a sad, delightful
addition to the improbable '90s renaissance of French cinema -- a
single glass of champagne, with an acrid absinthe chaser.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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