Shall We Kiss, a French comedy directed and written by Emmanuel Mouret, is, if nothing else, a welcome contrast to the merde that qualifies for romantic comedy in Hollywood. Especially since Judd Apatow and crew came out with the rom-com for guys, concealing formulaic plots and messages of Maid in Manhattan-level cloyingness in deceptively foul-mouthed packages, the need for an interesting new spin on the genre has never been greater. And we simply can’t count on Woody Allen; his wonderful Vicky Christina Barcelona was preceded by the horrible Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream.
In Shall We Kiss, Mouret creates an uneasy synthesis of Allen and Eric Rohmer, a heavyweight of the French New Wave. He borrows Rohmer’s aversion to close-ups and his penchant for lengthy philosophical dialogue and treating the problems of the beautiful, well-educated bourgeoisie with un-ironic seriousness. Mouret’s Rohmer-influenced scenes come off well, but it’s in his attempts to imitate Allen that he goes wrong.
The film’s framing story, handled with wonderful lightness and economy, begins with Gabriel (Michael Cohen) meeting Émilie (Julie Gayet) on the streets of Nantes and offering her a lift to her hotel. There’s clear chemistry between the two, although both of them are happily coupled with others, and a charming dinner only turns up the heat. Gabriel then goes in for the kiss, but Émilie demurs. By way of explanation, she launches into a long story about how a simple kiss can mean more than it seems.
It’s in this tale-within-a-tale that Mouret shifts tone from the almost meditative eroticism of Rohmer to the subdued farce of Allen, with mixed results. Émilie’s story centers around Nicolas Gimas (Mouret) and Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), longtime friends who are both dating other people. Judith, in fact, is set to be engaged to a wealthy pharmacist named Claudio (Stefano Accorsi). When Nicolas confesses to Judith that he’s starved for physical intimacy since his last break up, she offers to relieve his suffering with a friendly, no-strings-attached liaison.
Although Mouret wants to play this sex scene for laughs, the result is more unsettling than chuckle-inducing. Nicolas is excruciatingly polite, asking permission for every caress, and Judith’s rigid posture and total lack of involvement in the manipulation of her own body would not be out of place in a rape scene if this weren’t a comedy. It’s dead-pan farce, emphasis on the “dead.” Creepiness notwithstanding, the sex is apparently quite satisfying for both parties, and Nicolas and Judith find themselves, quite unwittingly, in the middle of a lurid love affair. The comedy-of-manners that ensues is set to the lush romantic strains of Schubert and Tchaikovsky.
Full of comic misunderstandings, jealous lovers, and even a ditzy blonde (Nicolas’s girlfriend), the story of Nicolas and Judith strives for the zaniness of early Allen. But Mouret lacks Allen’s brilliant talent for cutting bon mots, and the dialogue is often annoyingly cutesy. Also, Mouret, unlike Allen, never takes advantage of his locale—Paris appears as a succession of well-furnished apartments and generic storefronts. If the two directors have anything in common, it’s their fondness for casting themselves, both somewhat hard-on-the-eyes specimens, alongside the most beautiful young actresses around. But Mouret surpasses Allen when it comes to creating beautiful compositions, often incorporating great art (Many of the scenes take place in Paris’s art museums).
In the movie’s final act, when Nicolas and Judith’s affair begins to exact an emotional toll on their partners, this light comedy takes a turn to the dark side. The rage and sorrow that Accorsi brings to his Claudio stands in stark contrast to the rather carefree dilly-dallying that precedes it and is a welcome reminder that love isn’t just a game. In the film’s climactic scene, which comes literally at the end, Mouret returns to Rohmer’s style and delivers a heart-stopping finale. Content not to tie up all his loose ends, he leaves us with a bittersweet taste in our mouths and unsettling thoughts in our minds.
Although weighed down by colorless dialogue and rather forced farce, Shall We Kiss makes up in romance what it lacks in comedy. She’s Not That Into You, this is not.