Delicacy

May 5, 2012
Screen shot 2012-06-09 at 4.48.02 PM

What a brilliant year it has been for French films. After The Artist rightly swept the board at the Academy Awards, the highlights have continued to arrive in unbroken succession. From the 45 features shown at year’s French Film Festival, an unprecedented number have enjoyed local theatrical releases. The list includes Romantics Anonymous, The Well-Digger’s Daughter, Goodbye First Love, and the intriguing Café de Flore. By the end of the month, the Festival opener, A Declaration of War, will be showing in Australian cinemas.

To put this in perspective, the big box-office items in Australia are invariably films like The Avengers, which reputedly grossed $6 million on its opening day. None of the French productions make it into the top fifty for 2012, with the exception of The Artist, which comes in at number 30, behind a procession of cinematic masterpieces seemingly designed for viewers with double-digit IQs.

We may welcome this new wave of French releases as a sign there is a small but discerning Australian audience for intelligent, well-made films. One might even hypothesise that it’s a growing audience.

The most recent French offering is Delicacy, which was one of the hits of this year’s festival. It stars the delectable Audrey Tautou, which will be drawcard enough for many viewers. Even better, it is that rarest of beasts: a contemporary comedy that is actually funny.

While I don’t see myself as maudlin, I’ve grown accustomed to sitting in movies wondering why anybody could possibly be laughing at the stuff that appears on screen. Most of what passes for comedy is gross, inept, predictable and pathetic. Romantics Anonymous is an exception to this trend, but it is a very slight affair.

Delicacy, the debut feature by the brothers David and Stéphane Foenkinos, is a sharper, more considered  comedy. Tautou plays Nathalie, a young woman whose life becomes blank and empty when she loses her husband, Francois (Pio Marmai) in an accident. Their romance had been so passionate that Nathalie feels she is only half-alive. She throws herself into her work, attracting the unwelcome attentions of her sleazebag boss, Charles (Bruno Todeschini). His efforts are in vain because she is the ice maiden of the office – desirable but untouchable.

By now the story is beginning to drag a little, as social paralysis provides a limited basis for plot development. The twist arrives in the shape of Markus, a lumbering, awkward Swede, who works as an underling in Nathalie’s company. Walking into her office on a routine matter, he finds her in a state of distraction. In trance-like fashion she walks over and kisses him, then seems to forget all about it.

From here on, audiences begin to squirm and giggle as this beauty-and-the-beast romance progresses by small, nervous steps. The humour owes everything to Francois Damiens, whose performance as Markus is sheer genius. To raise a laugh he only has to appear dressed in a cardigan and a pair of ugly shoes. When he curls back his lip in a dazed, toothy smile it’s almost unbearable.

Everybody seems to view the maladroit Markus with horror, and we initially feel the same way. The charm of this film lies in the way he develops as a character, becoming more interesting, more sympathetic, even more attractive.

The title may refer to the delicate situation in which Markus finds himself, trying to woo the frozen, hyper-sensitive Nathalie. Yet it could just as easily refer to the story-telling and the acting, which are feats of consummate delicacy. It may be only a first film for the Foenkinos brothers, but they already display an understanding of that indefinable piece of cinematic subtlety known as “the Lubitsch touch.”

Delicacy, France, rated M, 109 mins

Published by the Australian Financial Review, May 05, 2012