Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Review: "Delicacy"

"Delicacy" is a little bit sad, a little bit sweet, and distinctly French. It's also something of a meditation on physical beauty, though not in the sort of way you'd expect.

Audrey Tautou plays Nathalie, one-half of a perfect couple that's sundered when her husband (Pio Marmaï) dies in a car accident. Years later, having grown accustomed to her loneliness, Nathalie suddenly and inexplicably takes up a tremulous romance with a homely, shy co-worker whom nobody thinks is a good match for her.

The subject of female attractiveness is often addressed in the movies, both implicitly and explicitly, but they tend to be pretty oblivious on male handsomeness. Actors like Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen routinely hook up with unaccountably hot onscreen partners.

Because Tautou is roughly France's equivalent of Julia Roberts, it brings an extra layer of attention to the physical disparity between her and Belgian actor François Damiens. Audiences like to look at pretty pairings, and here the filmmakers deliberately underline the incongruity.

Now, Damiens is not actually some sort of bridge troll, just not handsome in a classically cinematic way, and possesses one of those unfortunate balding patterns that makes his head look like it has mange. But Damiens accentuates his character's awkwardness and indistinctness, giving us a portrait of a man people aren't repulsed by, but someone they simply don't notice.

"An ugly, insignificant guy" is how a jealous rival for Nathalie's affections describes him, and that's a pretty spot-on description of how everyone regards him, and possibly even how Markus thinks of himself.

A Swede living and working amongst the French, Markus operates in a seemingly self-imposed isolation. The employees in the office next to his don't recognize his name when Nathalie comes looking for him. His clothes are so bland it appears as if he never changes them.

Their affair begins when Markus reports one day to Nathalie, who is his boss, and in a fog she sidles up to him and plants a passionate kiss. When he comes back the next day and asks her about it, she is unaware of what she did, and apologizes. Needless to say, that doesn't do wonders for his ego.

But eventually they begin a furtive though chaste romance, going to plays and restaurants. Nathalie finds something comfortable about Markus, who is guileless and sweet-natured. This contrasts with Nathalie's predatory manager Charles (Bruno Todeschini), who can accept that she has rejected him but not that it is in favor of the uncharismatic Markus. Nathalie's friends are baffled why she would date someone so unlike herself.

"Delicacy" was co-directed by brothers Stéphane and David Foenkinos, from a screenplay by David based upon his novel. This is their first feature film behind the camera, and they bring a lyrical, magical quality to the story.

The duo often ignore cinematic storytelling conventions, almost as if they find them dull and unworthy. For example, we don't meet Markus until 40 minutes into the movie for that kissing scene, and the next thing we see he's walking down the street to a slow-motion musical interlude where pretty girls are all looking his way. Most filmmakers would feel a need to set up that character more before giving him such a scene, but the Foenkinoses find that shorthand sometimes works best.

There's not a terrible lot of depth to "Delicacy," just a simple story about star-crossed lovers. In this case, they aren't separated by warring families but by everyone's expectations for them. What a sweet way to disappoint.

3 stars out of four

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