Mild in novelty, measured in ambition

Measured. This is the one word that easily steps into my head when attempting to describe Stéphane and David Foenkinos’s La Délicatesse.

Measured, because it seems that these rookie directors did their best not to overdo it; a perilous endeavour when it comes to the popular genre that is ‘romantic comedy’, particularly so in France. It is precisely this that constitutes both the strength and the weakness of this motion picture.

The Foenkinos brothers have tried to put forward a romantic film that stands out, and they partly succeeded. What might appear as a classic boy-meets-girl story quickly takes a sharp and truly unexpected turn: no more than ten minutes into the movie the initial blissful existence of Nathalie (Tautou) and François (Marmaï) is torn apart by the latter’s sudden death in a traffic accident (you needn’t worry, this is no spoiler).
The great remainder of the story then revolves around Nathalie’s grief and her precarious and awkward road to recovery. The solution to her troubles could come in the most unexpected of shapes; enter the gauche, Swedish baldy named Markus (François Damiens).

No attempt is made to hijack viewers’ emotions through Nathalie’s grief. By placing the tragic element at the start of the movie, the directors purposefully avoided the trap in which some of their predecessors – namely Guillaume Canet in France’s last major export of the kind, Little White Lies (2010) – have fallen before. There is no cathartic effusion of depressing, moralistic and (hopefully) contagious sadness in La Délicatesse. Here, a woman’s grief is told with a very light touch, and a decent dose of humour, making this – once again – a measured, digestible approach. So much so that it sometimes passes off as too light, and some might take offense precisely to how lightly the movie treats issues no less shameful than sexual harassment in the workplace.

Equally mild is the surprisingly and refreshingly limited use of the background location, which is none other than Le Gai Paris. This is said as praise to both David and Stéphane Foenkinos: they manage to avoid using the French capital as the clichéd city of love, élan and whatnot; only one failed love scene takes place within sight of the Eiffel tower and, for that matter, the real crux of the story unfolds in rural locations outside the city.

Other noteworthy elements include the motion picture’s soundtrack, which breathes new life into the use of xylophones, used to the death since the time of Amélie. An unexpectedly good Émilie Simon calmly sways the viewer into comfort and cosiness; a perfect match to the calm nature of the story.

Yet this inherent mildness also backfires. Characters are not particularly vibrant and do not seem to have much more life in them than the sheer and limited setting the directors allocated them. Some actors, such as the excellent Joséphine de Meaux who plays Nathalie’s best friend, are criminally underused, their appearances downplayed to quasi-cameo proportions, while the main characters are but superficially approached and developed.

The actors’ performances reflect the movie: above average, but not outstanding. Tautou is her usual self, looking confused and exhausted most of the time (her signature facial expression), but still managing to pull off the odd smiling scene or the – at the risk of overdoing it – measured nervous breakdown. Damiens, on the other hand, gives a fine performance with a knack for comedic timing. 

All in all, La Délicatesse is an inviting movie which Danes will no doubt appreciate for regularly poking fun at the Swedes. It’s a good strategy for a first date. Yet, it might not hurt to have something planned for later, just in case.

La Délicatesse (7)
Dir: David Foenkinos, Stéphane Foenkinos; FR Romance, 2012, 108 mins; Audrey Tautou, Francois Damiens, Pio Maraï, Joséphine de Meaux
Premieres July 26
Playing nationwide

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