During the Seventeenth Century, aristocratic women often glued little dots of black taffeta to their faces or breasts to accentuate the whiteness of their skin. On the forehead such a mark was called a "majestique," near the eye a "passionne," and near the lip a "galante." On the chin, it was called a "discrete."
That tidbit is but one of many offered up by Antoine (Fabrice Luchini), a pretentious Parisian pseudointellectual and an aspiring author of dubious talent with an inexhaustible catalogue of mental trivia. Depending upon the situation, he will recite stories of Gilles de Rais (a child molester and murderer who begged for forgiveness at the foot of the gallows), Tristan Bernard, or Restif de la Bretonne. Talking a good game is Antoine's raison d'atre, and Luchini deftly plays him as both engaging storyteller and slimy manipulator.
Unfortunately for Antoine, his lover, Solange (Marie Bunel), has heard enough and has the audacity to dump him just as he is rehearsing his big breakup speech for her. This humiliation does not sit well with the unrepentant chauvinist and self-styled womanizer. With the help of his sleazy, sadistic mentor Jean (Maurice Garrel), the would-be writer cooks up a plan to avenge himself upon the women of the world: picking one innocent at random, he'll seduce and abandon her, then cap the humiliation by allowing Jean to publish his meticulous memoirs of the entire sordid affair.
Enter Catherine (Judith Henry), a guileless sweetheart with a mole on her chin whom Antoine dubs la discrete and hires, according to plan, as a translator. Guided by Jean's step-by-step instructions, the seduction goes according to plan. Catherine's vulnerability is unwittingly her best defense; in the time-honored tradition of Les liaisons dangereuses, the seducer temporarily falls prey to the purity of the seduced. If this were an American movie, Antoine would see the error of his ways and join forces with Catherine to turn the tables on creepy old Jean. But true to its French cinematic bloodline, hearts get broken and duplicity and vindictiveness triumph. Only Jean wins.
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Like its protagonist, la discrete walks a fine line between pretentiousness and insight. At times Luchini calls to mind a Gallic version of Woody Allen, circa Annie Hall or Manhattan A a glib, self-absorbed lightweight who becomes romantically involved with a better woman than he deserves and whose insatiable male ego eventually mucks everything up. At other times he's like one of those mannered poseurs currently frequenting many of the clubs and restaurants along Ocean Drive A vain and vacuous.
French film critics awarded Henry Best New Actress for her portrayal of the waiflike victim of Antoine's betrayal. Her role is a pivotal one, balancing naivete and pragmatism. The film's finest scene is one in which Catherine meets Antoine's previous lover and is warned not to fall under the spell of his gilded gab. "He'll say this today and the opposite tomorrow. He says whatever suits him, whenever it suits him," she is cautioned, and a lesser actress would not have been able to convince us Catherine would still be willing to take a chance.
Dialogue holds sway over action throughout la discrete; the movie's plot is of less consequence than the subtle shades of characterization and nuance. One scene begins with Antoine's disdainful dismissal of "people who work at useless jobs. They think their useless chores are work because they get paid." Moments later he is envious of "the man who cozily works his eight-hour shift."
While director Christian Vincent has attempted to distance himself from comparisons with fellow French filmmaker Eric Rohmer, one's attitude toward the latter director might still serve as a reliable litmus test for one's reaction toward la discrete. As with Rohmer, Vincent shows his characters talking about sex a lot more often than he shows them having it (there is less nudity in la discrete than in an average half-hour of daytime TV). If Rohmer's methodical picking away at the veneer of modern behavior and sexual mores via his characters' propensity for probing conversation is your idea of stimulating fare, then la discrete is your kind of film. If, on the other hand, you'd rather watch paint dry than endure another Claire's Knee, keep your distance. As Antoine's ex-lover Solange puts it, "When you've known him a while,you stop paying attention to what he says. He talks and talks.