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Mouth to Mouth

Off-beat French comedy calmly yet ludicrously skewers bourgeois foibles

Emmanuel Mouret gives Virginie Ledoyen a hand.

Shall We Kiss?

Director:Emmanuel Mouret
Cast:Michaël Cohen, Julie Gayet, Virginie Ledoyen, Stefano Accorsi,emmanuel Mouret
Release Date:2009
Genre:Comedy, Foreign

Opens April 10 at the Charles Theatre

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/8/2009

Emmanuel Mouret is either much smarter than the average filmmaker or just plain lucky. The writer, director, and star of Shall We Kiss?--his fifth turn pulling such triple duties--somehow creates comedy out of drama, eroticism out of the innocuous, and minor tragedy out of melodrama. That he does all this inside a total creampuff of a coincidence-riddled story within a story makes this confection a delightful treat that you'll immediately forget when the lights go up.

Parisian fabric designer Émilie (Julie Gayet) runs into furniture restorer Gabriel (Michaël Cohen), who offers her a friendly ride--which, in romantic French movies, turns into dinner with wine, even though they each have a romantic partner at home. Dropping her off at her hotel, she thanks him for the wonderful evening and he hopes for a kiss. She demurs--not because she doesn't want to, but because you can never tell just where a kiss may lead.

Yes, Shall We Kiss? rests its entire premise on a kiss' potential. It's the movie's anvil-heavy leitmotif, yet it somehow feels lighter than air. To illustrate her point, Émilie tells Gabriel the story of two acquaintances that takes up the bulk of the movie. School teacher Nicolas (writer/director Mouret) and lab researcher Judith (Virginie Ledoyen) are longtime best friends. Nicolas is involved with a woman, Judith is married to pharmacist Claudio (Stefano Accorsi), but Judith and Nicolas are closer than a couple. They tell each other everything.

So it feels perfectly natural for Nicolas, after his partner moves, to confess to Judith that he feels he's lacking physical affection, and its absence has taken control of his life. It's an affection that a prostitute wasn't able to satisfy, the lack of kissing in such a business transaction totally putting him off. And since they're so close, Nicolas wants to know if Judith might be willing to help him deal with his affection problems.

Now, how this scene plays out perfectly captures the movie's subtle charms. Ledoyen is dressed in simple elegance: white shirt and sweater, string of pearls, and dark skirt and hose. And since Judith's husband has money, they live in one of those simply adorned but gorgeously spacious Parisian flats in which the characters of Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol movies always live.

Mouret's Nicolas, though, isn't as refined as Ledoyen's Judith and her surroundings. He's unconventionally handsome, more puppy-dog cute, really, a tad neurotic but not frenetically so. And how he chooses to express himself is equally as offbeat: he never comes out and says he needs sex, instead couching it in this vague "affection" before comparing it to having a splinter in his bottom that he can't remove on his own. Nicolas and Judith maintain this splinter comparison throughout this polite conversation, and it all starts to become a tad silly--as in, when you live with somebody, she can remove it for you.

Naturally, nothing is more seductive than discussions of butt-splinter removal. So Judith and Nicolas do go bed together in an absurd yet touching love scene, which somehow makes his hands softly touching her through her clothes both primly innocuous and Buñuelian naughty and concludes with the movie's most erotic image: a nude couple in bed, covered by a comforter, kissing chastely, only their mouths touching.

Kiss moves back and forth between Gabriel and Émilie and Nicolas and Judith--Gabriel even has an kissing anecdote of his own--and the outcomes of each story affect Gabriel and Émilie's decision to kiss. Love is the ephemeral object here, as Gabriel believes that Nicolas and Judith--who enjoyed treating his affection a little too much--needed only to kiss to realize they were in love.

That everything here gleefully entertains while not adding up to much is less a knock than an impressive series of implausible twists. Neither Judith and Nicolas nor Émilie and Gabriel are heading toward storybook romances, but each story concludes in a disarmingly effective flourish that is equal parts bedroom farce, stark drama, and outright silliness. And it's the silly that keeps everything from sliding into insufferable maudlin excess. Credit writer/director/co-star Mouret, who subtly mines humor in the droll and demur. Mouret's comic sense here pokes fun at serious, Rohmeresque considerations of morality, specifically skewering heady, conflicted considerations of adultery in dialog that both downplays the discussion and teeters toward the preposterous.

Kiss takes aim at cold, rational relationship dramas by doing the same thing in such methodically madcap ways. Even Ledoyen, typically more accustomed to playing women with more gregarious moxie, enjoys mockingly shoving passion under a controlled bourgeois façade. When Judith and Nicolas decide to treat his affection again, in hopes that doing so a second time will show them that the pleasure of the first was merely its novelty, she says, "Let's do it on the floor, where it will be most uncomfortable." But she says it in such as a posh voice so unaffected by emotion that she might as well be telling somebody how to clean her jewels, simultaneously twisting lust into the banal and good manners into the absurd.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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