Film Reviews

It's AIDS, Tra La, It's Love

When Jacques Demy died in 1990, one might have thought his unique style of filmmaking died with him. For while the history of movie musicals is rich and multifaceted, Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and his lesser-known Room in Town and Three Seats for the 26th hold a very special place apart. They may have been inspired by MGM in all its confectionary glory, but it is doubtful that producer Arthur Freed would have known what to make of librettos involving the Algerian war, labor unrest, the tragedy of star-crossed lovers, and the simple fact that our romantic dreams don't always pan out, as they did for Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. But now in Jeanne and the Perfect Guy, the writing-directing team of Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, working with composer Philippe Miller, have taken up with surprising ease where Demy and his musical collaborator Michel Legrand left off. For Jeanne is a musical about AIDS, and it's not a downer.

Virginie Ledoyen, confirming her reputation as the most important actress of this generation (viewers will soon know her from her role in The Beach, with Leonardo DiCaprio), stars as Jeanne, the kind of heroine Demy would have adored. Beautiful, headstrong, and deeply romantic, Jeanne works as a receptionist in a travel agency while juggling an increasingly complicated love life. It's not the type of job a woman with her stunning looks would be expected to hold for long, but Jeanne seems reasonably content. Free with her sexual favors, dispensed via a moral code that would give Dr. Laura cardiac arrest, she's far from awed by the attentions of a young executive (Frederic Gorny) who would appear to be an ideal catch for any young miss. But Jeanne sees no reason why she can't enjoy the handsome office messenger boy (Laurent Arcaro), or any number of other men who cross her path and catch her fancy.

Then one day she meets Olivier (Mathieu Demy, son of Jacques) on the subway, and it's love at first sight for both. But Olivier, a recovering drug addict, is HIV-positive, and in far more dire physical straits than he first appears. Slowly but surely withdrawing from Jeanne even though he needs her, Olivier returns to his family to face his inevitable decline, leaving Jeanne to face the future by herself. Knowing the kind of woman she is, there's no doubting that Life Will Go On Somehow. What remains for her, and us, however, is the bittersweet fact of the fragility of happiness.

Ducastel, Martineau, and Miller capture that fragile happiness in the film's many musical numbers, which are remarkable for their wit and intensity. Each one embodies the ideal that music and dance begin where simple words and ordinary gestures fail. In Jeanne that happens at the drop of a hat. The very first scene finds an office cleaning crew composed of illegal immigrants singing of their plight in the most offhanded way imaginable. Moments later a gay friend of Jeanne (Jacques Bonnaffé) pours out his heart about a lover who died of AIDS in a song that encapsulates the loss and societal indifference that an entire generation has inherited.

Other numbers, such as one in which a bookseller (Emmanuelle Goize) breaks into a dance routine with Olivier, sport the charm of On the Town. And then there's the ACT UP street demonstration -- a head-on collision of Michael Kidd and Larry Kramer. It's the sheer unlikeliness of such juxtapositions that makes Jeanne and the Perfect Guy such a special and precious experience.

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David Ehrenstein