Film Reviews

Accept No Substitutes!

Surely by now the cinematic love triangle has become one of France's most enduring exports. Nobody plays more variations on the old three-part harmony than the French. Heck, most English-speaking countries don't even have an equivalent for the phrase "menage a trois."

It's kind of ironic then that while we cede expertise in matters of trilateral liaisons to the French, most Americans would rather watch some dumbed-down Hollywood knockoff featuring English-speaking actors than sit through the original French account. Mainstream American audiences have little tolerance for subtitles. The average pimply-face adolescent (who so many U.S. films target) doesn't want to have to read while chugging watery Coke and scarfing fat-soaked popcorn at the local cineplex. So rather than just buy U.S. distribution rights of hit French films, American movie studios in recent years have taken to churning out English-language remakes of them, especially romantic comedies. For example the soon-to-be-released Robin Williams vehicle The Bird Cage (much of which was shot on South Beach) is a remake of 1981's La Cage aux Folles. Despite occasional successes such as Three Men and a Baby, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and Cousins (all of which provided bland but mildly amusing escapist fare), remakes have generally resulted in tame, unfunny flops like My Father, the Hero. The producers of My Father, a humorless attempt to sanitize father-daughter incest, went so far as to convince the great French actor Gerard Depardieu to reprise his performance from the original, but in English. Quel desastre! You can lead a Depardieu to Hollywood, but you can't make him funny.

So take my advice: See the spicy, sexy, and träs comique French Twist before some stogie-sucking Yankee movie mogul remakes it into a tepid imitation of itself. The basic plot of French Twist could be considered routine by French standards: Laurent Lafaye (Alain Chabat), an overachieving philanderer of a husband, discovers that his comely wife Loli (Victoria Abril in peak comic form) has taken a lover. But French Twist gives that familiar formula a Nineties spin; this time the other man is a woman. And not some fem, macho-fantasy-inducing lipstick lesbian. Loli's lover is a short, stout "diesel dyke" (as the film puts it) who looks as if she could kick hubby's pampered little ass if the need arose.

Josiane Balasko, who wrote and directed French Twist, plays the macho mistress. Her refreshingly anti-glam performance lends the character of Marijo beaucoup de credibility. (This is not one of those movies in which a previously ugly duckling undergoes a makeover and emerges a beautiful swan.) Balasko has no qualms about portraying physically unattractive characters. She was the plain, pudgy object of Depardieu's desire in Bertrand Blier's Too Beautiful for You (yet another French love triangle film). Here the actress cuts her hair short and forgoes makeup to help drive home the point that it is tenderness and affection that Loli craves, not superficial appearances.

When Marijo's decrepit van breaks down in front of the Lafayes' house, Loli's kids assume that the heavyset stranger who comes to their doorway for assistance is a man. An embarrassed Loli invites Marijo in. Marijo helps the neglected housewife extract one of the kids' toys from her kitchen drain; after they smoke a joint and drink a few glasses of wine, Marijo lends Loli a hand unclogging her bottled-up carnal appetite as well.

You get the feeling that if Marijo were prettier and more feminine that Laurent would not only tolerate his wife's indiscretion, he'd encourage it and shoot for a threesome. Laurent is the kind of guy who can dine in public with one mistress, set up a date with another over his cellular phone, and simultaneously flirt with a third woman. Hell, he's even shtupping his kids' teenybopper baby sitter. But Marijo is not that kind of woman, either in terms of sexual preference or looks. So the battle is joined: repentant two-timing louse spouse versus soulful, nourishing lesbian lover.

At first Loli is contrite and guilt-ridden about her brief infidelity. But when Laurent -- hardly a model of faithfulness -- takes the hard line and boots Loli out of their bedroom to teach her a lesson, his strategy backfires. Instead of groveling for her husband's forgiveness, Loli invites Marijo to move in. The movie goes into comic overdrive as Laurent and Marijo trade verbal barbs and jockey for Loli's affections.

The first major error Hollywood will commit when they redo this film in English (and make no mistake -- they will redo it) will be miscasting. There simply is no big-name English-speaking actress who could play the exasperated, sex-starved Loli with Victoria Abril's mixture of spunk, lust, and innocence. Not to mention her nonchalance while cavorting in the buff; with Loli's newfound fulfillment and uninhibited sexuality comes a great deal of nudity. Try to picture another actress best known for her comedic pluck -- say, Sandra Bullock -- simulating fellatio and making it seem cute, or unself-consciously prancing about in front of the cameras wearing nothing but a cooking apron or less. Never happen. Abril is one of a kind; the role of Loli suits her so well that it could have been written with her in mind.

Nor will the Hollywood dealmakers have the guts to cast a plain Jane such as Balasko in the lesbian role. Maybe they'd settle for a proven comedian like Rosie O'Donnell or (shudder) Roseanne, but more likely they'll make Marijo a babe. Similarly, the role of Laurent (who gets most of the best lines) will probably go to this week's TV sitcom star looking to make the transition to film. It's hard to imagine an American actor handsome enough to be convincing as a womanizer, funny enough to deliver Laurent's punch lines with just the right mixture of sensitivity and swagger, and thespian enough to expose just the right amount of vulnerability under Laurent's male chauvinist swagger to make him likable. Whether brushing off a pesky rose vendor with "No thanks, we've already fucked," or, in a drunken, jealous rage insulting all of the female patrons of a quaint mountainside cafe, Alain Chabat is terrific. One minute Laurent is despondent, convinced his wife doesn't love him any more. The next minute he's heeding an old streetwalker's advice and fighting for Loli's heart. Chabat handles the mood swings with ease. And when an old flame of Marijo's suddenly appears on the scene and brings out Loli's jealous side, Chabat's expression perfectly captures Laurent's perverse glee at the turn of events and, without a word being spoken, elicits belly laughs from the audience.

Accomplished acting, biting observational humor, and an unconventional love triangle -- French Twist has all the elements of a classic French farce. Just see it before Hollywood does.

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Todd Anthony
Contact: Todd Anthony