French romantic comedies are the art-house import equivalent of pimped-out Hollywood blockbusters. Both appeal to a wide and diffuse target audience — moderately cultured bourgeois and pop thrill seekers — and both are basically critic-proof. Where Michael Bay obliterates scrutiny with fireballs and shiny screeching machinery, French comedies gently neutralize through learned banter, exotic settings, and scantily clad gamines. The machine works something like this: an older gentleman clicks into place across from a fresh face, situational laughter is achieved while clothes teasingly peel away, a titillating trailer cuts itself, Denby reviews for the New Yorker, and decent money is made. Though Anne Fontaine follows the formula with “The Girl from Monaco,” she also tweaks it a bit, and her modifications make the film at least formally intriguing.
Pie-faced comedian Fabrice Luchini plays Bertrand, a veteran high-powered defense attorney relocated to Monaco for a notorious murder case. For protection a bodyguard, Christophe (Roschdy Zem), is hired to shadow Bertrand throughout the long trial, and his vocational intensity at first unnerves his mild, measured charge. But slowly a codependence develops, and the proverbial odd couple forms an unlikely friendship. Bertrand is fascinated by, and comes to rely on Christophe’s bold, no-nonsense problem solving, and Christophe feeds off of Bertrand’s reliance. Things get complicated, as they are wont, when a saucy TV weathergirl, Audrey (Louise Bourgoin, a version of perfection poised between cartoon and robot) becomes improbably enamored of Bertrand. Is she a social climber, a femme fatale, a schemer out to make former flame Christophe jealous, or actually in love?
To a clearly contrasted, overly circumscribed dyad — an older, cerebral, white collar white man alongside a younger, physical, working-class black man — a third point is added, and via her gauche femininity and generous sexuality, depth is created along the fluid angles of the triangle. As is often the case in such movie arrangements, the female is basically a threat to the cozy complimentary homosocial relationship, a pesky if ravishing device that turns the plot but also represents its, and the boys’, climactic release.
As a director Fontaine is too enamored of her scripted conceit, blocking shots that have metaphorical import but rarely any visual impact, and impatiently cutting away from developing scenes to advance through her diagram. While the actors manage to bring their roles to tentative life (Zem in particular does much with little), the characters still feel written, like attributes stacked, dealt, and played. The Bertrand-Christophe relationship, mediated and consummated by a bewitching, infuriatingly liberated woman, fascinates but is never given space to follow its ambiguities. Their behavior feels too indebted to the schema, and not sufficiently motivated by personality or plausibility.
In lieu of aesthetic panache, Fontaine has fun with form and psychology, gradually slackening the ties around comedic and romantic conventions. Though a comedy for most of its running time, the film doesn’t commit to being very funny, a strategy that helps prepare the audience for a turn toward suspense but leaves the main of the film flat-footed and a bit dull. Yet what Fontaine achieves toward the end of “The Girl from Monaco” isn’t exactly a turn. It’s more like a jug handle, deliberately arcing out to explore the class aspects of the Christophe-Audrey backstory before motoring for intrigue (while switching from Nora Ephron–approved standards to a Bernard Herrmann–inspired score). In its climax and coda the film finally feels fully at home. Done understating outlandish set-ups, through dampening laughs with ponderous overtones, tropes finally round into something like people and a wry thriller emerges. Too little too late, perhaps — Claude Chabrol would have cut to the chase about an hour earlier — but at least Fontaine gives a complacent audience something of a ride, and a grateful critic something to parse.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]