Friday, March 27, 2009

Shall We Kiss?

When French actress Julie Gayet tells a story, you want to listen. While there is nothing ground-breaking about a film structured as an extended story or flashback told to a listener, and the audience by proxy, Gayet’s Émilie is quite the storyteller. The telling of her tale is at least as important as the events she relates in Emmanuel Mouret’s Shall We Kiss? (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

When visiting Nantes on business, Émilie happens to cross paths with Gabriel. Despite both being in committed relationships, he volunteers to help her spend her free night in town. After a pleasant evening of dinner and conversation, he moves in for a goodnight kiss. When Émilie throws up the stop-sign, he is confused, so she explains by telling the story of the once platonic friends Nicholas and Judith.

Having taken pity on the frustrated Nicholas, Judith reluctantly agreed to sleep with him. Evidently, even prostitutes failed to provide the relief he sought, because they prohibit the intimacy of kissing. Indeed that no-so-innocent kiss precipitously leads to sexual co-dependency and reckless infidelity, disrupting their lives and those of their partners. As a result, Émilie is leery of running such a risk in her own life.

As Émilie, Gayet has a distinctive Catherine Deneuve quality, so it is hardly surprising when she catches Gabriel’s eye. She has a mysterious charm that is quite seductive on-screen. Though Kiss might spend more time with the story of Nicholas and Judith, it ultimately feels like Gayet’s film. She and Michaël Cohen (as Gabriel) make an intriguing on-screen couple, as well as effective storytellers. Unfortunately, Virginie Ledoyen and writer-director Mouret lack their charm as Judith and Nicholas respectively, despite having far greater screen time.

Sensitively directed, Kiss is an adult film in the best, truest sense of the term. Mouret’s screenplay might be quietly reserved, but it offers quite a bit of wisdom. It deals frankly with sexual relationships without ever degenerating into a smarmy Sex and the City pretender. Also notable is his use of classical music, including the work of Schubert, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, which recalls some of the more effective films of the French Nouvelle Vague.

Kiss nicely captures that late night ambiance, as evening slips into morning while Émilie and Gabriel grapple with the title question. Nothing is meaningless in Mouret’s film, where actions most certainly have consequences. It is a finely crafted, mature drama that really sneaks up on viewers as it unspools. It opens today in New York at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza Cinema.