Sometimes all you need to get a movie — and maybe even to love it — is an opening shot of a willowy young woman sprinting down the sidewalks of Paris with a crushed bouquet of flowers under her arm while a sun-shower of classical piano music sprinkles over the soundtrack at twice the pace of her footsteps. Much like its harried blithe spirit of a heroine (Anaïs Demoustier, as captivating here as Renate Reinsve was in Joachim Trier’s similarly headstrong “The Worst Person in the World,” and twice as restless), Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s “Anaïs in Love” simply refuses to waste any time.
The fizzy yet poignant tale of a millennial who speeds through life as if she’s afraid that it might catch her, Bourgeois-Tacquet’s debut feature needs all of 11 milliseconds to give us a clear impression of its title character. We instantly surmise that life has been a little too possible for Anaïs, as it often seems to be for people so beautiful that even their most fleeting whims can reshape the world. We already sense that she’s always in a hurry because she’s always late, that she’s always late because she’s always present, and that she’s always present because she can’t stomach the idea of being anywhere else. We suspect that Anaïs has been seeing things through the eye of a storm for so long that she’s convinced herself the weather in Paris is always sunny, just as we suspect that if the film around her were any more French it would probably be a croissant. That’s all in the first shot.
Needless to say, “Anaïs in Love” sprints through some pretty familiar territory, most of which had already been mulched into shorthand before its 36-year-old writer-director was born. If anything, Bourgeois-Tacquet’s debut comes off as a deliberate effort to wrench a proud Gallic tradition — manically effervescent movies about motor-mouthed young neurotics — away from the foreign cineastes who’ve co-opted it for the 21st century, and return it to home soil where it might reconnect with its roots. The similarly motor-mouthed and bittersweet “Lady Bird” may fly a bit higher than “Anaïs in Love” ever does, but it’s only capital “C” Champagne if it gets bottled at the source.
So yes, of course Anaïs stumbles into an affair with a balding intellectual twice her age (Denis Podalydès), only to be disappointed by the lack of passion he brings to their trysts. Of course she then becomes infatuated with the man’s radiant 56-year-old wife, Emilie (a tender and multi-faceted Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), a semi-famous author who our hero stalks to a literary symposium in the French countryside — the kind where Alain Robbe-Grillet is referenced as if he were just down the hall, the handyman at the local hotel is an anti-capitalist playwright, and the search for a missing book naturally ends in some light nipple licking. Of course Anaïs is writing a dissertation “on 17th century descriptions of passion” that she’ll never finish.
Anaïs won’t finish it for the same reason that she “couldn’t take marital life” and never saves enough money to pay her rent: She needs to be in the now so badly that she’s lost all regard for memory, or imagination, or the way that love tends to blossom in pockets of feeling that exist outside of time. Standing out from a multiverse era in which most people waste their lives by living them in the conditional tense, Anaïs is chronically present. She’s so effortlessly anachronistic that her texts are scrawled onscreen like love letters written by candlelight; so claustrophobically afraid of being crushed to death by the smallest commitments in life that she refuses to ride the subway or sleep in the same bed with a partner after they have sex.
Anaïs reacts to her mother’s cancer diagnosis as if the woman is already dead, and can’t see the value in posing for a photo with her parents before it’s too late. Other deceptively major characters blip out of view like tricks of the light. Anaïs’ estranged husband shows up for all of one scene, and peaces out after his wife delivers a shock of seismic news with the casualness of a stray thought (“You don’t realize what human interaction is,” he scoffs). Their marriage fell apart because Anaïs couldn’t understand why a person would stay with someone who didn’t make them happy every single day. “Do you think that I don’t know how to love?” she asks her very confused landlord. The real problem is that she doesn’t know how to keep it.
The sharp and buoyant story that Bourgeois-Tacquet builds around its namesake isn’t particularly interested in teaching Anaïs how to do that; prescriptive thinking and linear emotional arcs would be at odds with a winsome smile of a film that moves at the speed of thought, and often with the same impulsiveness. Instead, “Anaïs in Love” skips forward in typical Rohmerian fashion, squeezing a four-hour film into a tight 93 minutes as Anaïs frantically tries to rescue whatever possibilities she can from an impossible situation.
Noé Bach’s supple cinematography burnishes Demoustier’s wild shimmer of a performance with the glow of a languid summer evening, while title cards slice the action into self-contained slivers of time in a way that allows the movie to feel as though it’s been filtered through Anaïs’ selective tunnel-vision. If her solipsism occasionally skids towards overwritten cliché (“I don’t want to meet interesting people,” she groans, “I want to be interesting”), Demoustier manages to find the truth in that even when the character she’s playing can’t hear it.
Anaïs would be insufferable to know, but she’s arresting to watch, and it’s perfectly understandable why even the most even-keeled men — and women — who blow into her path find it so hard to look away. They project themselves through Anaïs in a way that she refuses to project herself through them (a dynamic made literal in a delightful scene where Anaïs, Emilie, and her husband attend a screening of John Cassavetes’ “Opening Night”), and it makes for some warm and salty flirtations that gradually back into real stakes as if by accident. Anaïs isn’t so different in the wonderfully surprising last shot than she is in the first, but at last we can see that she’s having the time of her life.
A Magnolia Pictures release, “Anaïs in Love” is now playing in theaters, and will be available on VOD on Friday, May 6.