Cinema Signal:

French Film:
Texts and Contexts
by Susan Hayward
(in Paperback from Amazon)

[Ed. note: because of the unpredictable way accented letters are rendered
in English language browsers, they have been intentionally omitted.]
"The Valet"
(aka, "La Doublure," the stand-in)

While a French farce may feel as inconsequential as a crouton when it starts out, when and if it begins to tickle with humor and engage your lighter side you realize you're being downright entertained. Such is the experience to be anticipated with French filmmaker Francis Veber's clever pastiche that brings rich and poor into a framework of common interests and deceptions for the sake of romance.

Like in a solution of two parts when A and B mix becomes superglue or an explosion, Veber devises two situations so wide apart on the economic scale as to be on different planets whose orbits cause them to cross.

In the land of the working poor (as American economic advisors refer to this class) we have Francois Pignon (nerdly Gad Elmaleh) working as a valet at a posh restaurant with his friend and roommate Richard (more nerdly Dany Boon). Off hours he hangs out as much as he can at Emilie's (Virginie Ledoyen) new bookstore, an enterprise that has her in debt to the tune of over 30,000 Euros. Be that as it may, he's got marriage on his mind and invites her to lunch with an engagement ring in his pocket.

He's so serious, he kicked Richard out to live with his mother in anticipation of moving Emilie in. But Emilie torpedos his plan by insisting that their friendship since childhood rules out a romantic element.

Meanwhile, in the strata occupied by captains of industry, industrial baron Pierre Levasseur (Daniel Auteuil) is balancing wife and mistress. To the latter, famous supermodel Elena Simonsen (gorgeous, outgoing Alice Taglioni), he's worn out his promise to divorce wife and business partner Christine (superbly classy Kristin Scott Thomas) for two years now, and she's decided to move on.

Now comes that mixing part that sometimes results in a bomb. Just as Levasseur is arguing with Elena about his intentions, which takes place on the street, modest little Pignon happens by. And, just as this random contiguity comes together, a papparazzo captures the moment on film. The photo is front page, Christine gulps it down with her morning coffee, and Levasseur has a lot explaining to do.

All he's got by way of explanation is that the supermodel wasn't with him but rather with the other man in the photo. Christine doesn't buy it and wants proof. And here's the crux of the matter.

In order to head off the disaster of an immediate divorce and loss of a major portion of his wealth and holdings, he sets out to provide proof of his claim. Through lawyer and intermediary Maitre Foix (Richard Berry), he pays Pignon to move Elena in with him. The exact payment amount is the sum necessary to bail Emilie out of her debt. The negotiation with Elena isn't so cheap. Her participation in the scheme will cost him 20 million Euros, to be returned if he divorces Christine within the month.

Completing the plot's increasingly hilarious complications are private detectives in both Levasseur's and Christine's employ, with cameras to record the presumed farce of the arrangement, but being thwarted by Elena's determination to verify its reality with enough close contact to make it seem uncontestable. Pignon should be in male heaven with this turn of good fortune, but the moron's too much in love with Emilie to go beyond strong affection toward his delightful, head-turning roommate, which is warmly returned. Then, whose path does the new couple cross but Emilie's, just as she's at lunch with another suitor, and a meal of jealousies are served.

Ah, the French. They've been so good at mining romantic complexity for its veins of comedy -- for so long -- they more or less own the lease. While that premise is argued among the comedy-producing nations, this bomblet of bumbling unbelievability (with such rich casting) will tickle audiences in all the right places.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner
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