The mere presence of wide-eyed French gamine Audrey Tautou, star of the art-house hit Amelie, may be enough to get people into theaters to see Happenstance, which was made and released in France before the Amelie phenomenon swept the Gallic nation but is only now getting its American release. Viewers expecting another enchanting, whimsical tale of high energy and mischievous spirits will be sorely disappointed. Not that writer-director Laurent Firode doesn't aim for heavy doses of both whimsy and enchantment, but the story and characters he concocts come up short.
Happenstance -- the film's French title, Le Battement d'Ailes du Papillon (or The Beating of the Butterfly's Wings), is certainly more poetic -- is an ensemble piece about how even the most random and mundane acts affect destiny. Riding the Metro to her new job as a salesgirl in a big Paris department store, Irène (Tautou) is accosted by an annoying, friendly woman who demands to know her birthday and then proceeds to read her horoscope aloud, informing Irène she will find her true love before the day's out. The young man in the seat across from her (Algerian singing star Faudel) jumps slightly; though he doesn't say anything at the time, he shares the same birthdate. It doesn't take a master's degree in screenwriting to realize these two will end up together at picture's end.
Such a foregone conclusion needn't be a problem, however, since the pleasure in this type of story is the journey, not the destination. In Happenstance that journey consists of a steady stream of characters whose paths cross in the most tangential ways imaginable. Yet every chance encounter has a repercussion, which leads to another interaction and another and another until, eventually, our star-crossed lovers meet.
Opening January 18
The quotidian activities of life include a small band of illegal aliens crossing into France. Four are captured by the police, but the fifth one escapes, eventually jumping onto the back of a delivery truck and burrowing into piles of freshly picked lettuce. In doing so he accidentally knocks two lettuce heads into the road, where they cause an accident when a drunken bicyclist runs over them. The bike and its rider land in a ditch, where a little boy is about to relieve himself. The boy runs off in a fright and goes home, where he has a frightening dream his father is hurt. The mother tries to soothe the boy's fears, phoning the father who's in Paris on business. When he doesn't answer the phone, the worried wife takes a train to Paris, where it turns out her wayward husband is involved with another woman. And so on, and so on, and so on.
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It's a cute and very workable idea for a romantic comedy, assuming the incidents that connect the individuals are inventive and the specific personalities involved are engaging. Firode comes up with some clever and amusing situations, but his characters are so glum and unlikable it just isn't a whole lot of fun to spend time with them. Given that Happenstance was made a year before Amelie, it's probably unfair to compare the two, but it's also inevitable given the order in which they've been released in the United States. Whereas the characters in Amelie had endearing foibles and eccentricities (even if morbidly sad or disgruntled, they were comically so), the characters here are merely depressed or dull or uninteresting or downright misanthropic. The end result is that they and the film they inhabit fail to generate the kind of joie de vivre we've lately come to expect from the French.