By Indiewire | Indiewire October 26, 2000 at 2:00AM
REVIEW: "Venus Beauty" Has Looks AND Personality
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/ 10.26.00) -- In some ways, it seems the Parisian salon of Tonie Marshall's "Venus Beauty Institute" (opening tomorrow from Lot 47) is the wrong place for Angele (Nathalie Baye) to be working. It can't be healthy for a 40-year-old woman who wants to be loved despite her "sad face and flat ass," as one ex-lover tells her, to be immersed in a world where surface beauty, or the attempt at it, rules.
But while the fears and problems of their aging clientele are masked in a series of facials, vegetarian wraps, massages and deep tissue electrolysis, nothing symbolizes the spirit of Marshall's ode to aging women and lonely hearts better than the cute musical tones made whenever the front door of the salon swings open. It's funny, dead-on perfect, and it suggests that however bad things get, there is always a hint of optimism in the air.
The film opens with Angele jabbering neurotically and endlessly over coffee with a handsome man, who needs that coffee to stay attentive and the cigarette he's puffing to make this tolerable. They have just enjoyed a three-day 'amour fou' after their first meeting, and Angele begins to speak of his future, so he dumps her. She threatens to stalk him. "Usually I see it all," Angele confides later in an accurate bit of self-analysis. "The good, the bad, how I'll get dumped. So I build walls."
Balancing Angele's angst are her two younger co-workers, Samantha (Mathilde Seigner, sister of Emmanuelle), a trashy rebellious woman who will go out with any guy at the drop of a chapeau ("I have sex-ray vision," she claims), and sweet, innocent Marie (Audrey Tautou), a beautiful girl, barely out of her teens, who returns the kindly affection of a widower in his 50s who often visits the shop.
Angele's world is turned upside-down when the very thing her heart desires -- a young hunk of a man who has a thing for older women -- begins hounding her to go out with him. But since Angele trusts no one, she figures there's a catch and rebuffs his advances. Luckily for her, Antoine (Samuel Le Bihan) doesn't give up so easily. "Leave me at peace," Angele says on a train platform. Antoine's plucky response: "You're anything but at peace. That's why I like you."
Marshall, who also wrote the script for her fifth film, has an ear for dialogue and the veteran Baye, looking like an older Jennifer Aniston, drives the movie with heart and enthusiasm. But what raises "Venus Beauty Institute" above the normal romantic comedy-angst conventions is the depiction of the salon as a sort of spontaneous self-help group, with customers and co-workers commiserating over broken-down bodies and romances.
Ironically, most of these women are actually vibrantly attractive -- Marshall has assembled a formidable roster of middle-aged feminine talent, from the owner (Bulle Ogier, who had a memorable role in Olivier Assayas' "Irma Vep"), director Claire Denis ("Beau Travail") as an asthmatic, Claire Nebout (Jacques Doillon's "Ponette") as a woman who constantly parades around the shop nude -- and even Emmanuelle Riva, the star of Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima Mon Amour" way back in 1959, and Marshall's mother, one-time leading lady Micheline Presle, who both play old aunts of Angele still chasing men. (Marshall's father, the late bandleader and actor William Marshall, directed a howlingly bad sci-fi schlocker back in 1961, "The Phantom Planet.")
The men in Angele's life are well written, too. Antoine, who has a beautiful young fianc´e he's trying to shake, fluctuates between aggression and full retreat, willing to take command of their relationship when he has to, but also happy to have Angele manning the out-of-controls. There is also a nice role for veteran character actor Jacques Bonnaffe as Angele's former lover, who is literally disfigured after an accident that was apparently Angele's fault. Perhaps that's a bit obviously symbolic, but "Venus Beauty Institute" has plenty of personality to go with those looks.
[G. Allen Johnson is a contributing film critic to indieWIRE.]