Whimsical and high-concept, and featuring a standout performance from our new boyfriend Jérémie Elkaïm, who has just won Best Actor at the Rome Film Festival for this role (clearly the jury was crushin' on him too), "Hand in Hand" ("Main dans la Main") is a gentle, quirky take on the mystical and somewhat random power of attraction and love. By contrast with the artifice of the other French rom-com we reviewed in Rome, "Populaire," writer-director (and supporting star and Elkaïm's wife) Valérie Donzelli's lightness of touch evokes more the sensibility of a loved-up Miranda July in its attention to off-kilter but grounded detail. Or maybe it's just that lead actress, well-respected French thesp Valérie Lemercier, also excellent, here reminds us of July. It's the hair. Whatever the case, the film bubbles along nicely, with our two appealing leads bringing nuance to an idea that in the wrong hands could have become cutesy (we'll leave that for the bound-to-happen Reese-Witherspoon-starring U.S. remake), right until even that magic wears off and the film runs out of steam with about 15 unnecessary minutes to go.
The premise is simple and sweet: unambitious mirror-maker Joachim Elkaïm, who also co-writes) and successful dance school impresario Vero (Lemercier) meet, inexplicably kiss, and from that point on neither can physically leave the other's side. This despite the fact that they are not in love, and in fact Vero is in a stable relationship of an undefined but certainly long-term variety, with another woman, Helene. Confusion, exasperation, physical comedy and doctor's visits ensue before the two of them work out a way to simply live with their peculiar condition, explaining it only to those very close to them (who react with incredulity at first that gradually thaws into acceptance), and finding more or less ingenious ways to cover it up elsewhere. And soon, though methods of 'escape' occur to each of them, they find themselves coming to relish their unique closeness — to love the cage.
When it works, it works really well, and because of the superb performance from both leads and a script which downplays rather than amps up the oddness of their affliction, the gradual, oddly prosaic love story is believable despite the 'supernatural' circumstances. But as so often with this kind of high concept ("Stranger Than Fiction" occurs to us as another example), the quirky premise can't quite work out how to play itself out. At that point the film resorts to deus-ex-machina tactics to explain away the logic gaps but still enable the happy ending that it's somehow mandatory this sort of thing concludes with.
The result is an ending that is not bad, exactly, but it just doesn't feel a part of what has gone before. All the good work of grounding the film is lost in favor of a fantasy conclusion that, despite the unbelievability of a lot of what has led up to it, is the only part of the film we couldn't swallow. Their final dance should be a moment of stirring, sweet grace and is instead the one occasion when the two leads don't seem to have chemistry. Transplanted away from the milieu in which the rest of the film took place, the closing scenes play out in a weirdly downbeat fashion, for what is essentially a wish-fulfillment ending.
We can't believe "Hand in Hand" won't get a Stateside release of some sort, as it's a very sellable (to indie-land) melding of offbeat sensibility, Parisian fantasy and straight-up romantic comedy that we can imagine playing well in arthouse theaters. And dodgy ending aside, we'd recommend it, for the lovely Parisian-ness of the characters' lifestyles, for the charming simplicity of its premise and most of all, for the arrival of the exceptionally attractive Elkaïm. If we didn't call it before, after Donzelli's last, "Declaration of War," or last year's "Polisse," we call it here and now: he's going to be a star. [B]