With a happiness drive worthy of Amélie, Pierre Salvadori’s Beautiful Lies transcends its farcical plotting and ropey characterisation to deliver a masterclass on filmmaking.
The Pursuit Of Happiness by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
If you were a young French farceur angling to convert Cyrano de Bergerac into a comedy of errors à la Feydeau, you’d keep the nose in. And while Beautiful Lies is in no way an adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s classic comedy, it shares the play’s central theme of deceptive appearances and its comic business of redirected letters. De Vrais Mensonges might not be True Lies in the Tarantino sense, but there is nevertheless a rambunctious beauty to Pierre Salvadori’s tangled web.
Starring Audrey Tautou as the kind-hearted, conniving hairdresser with a chip on her shoulder, Beautiful Lies relies a little too much on the cultural capital of Amélie, even finding an echo in her name, Emilie, albeit in a slightly flatter form. And yet there’s none of the picturesque whimsy that made Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film such a worldwide success, just the lingering shadow of it in Pierre Salvadori’s eagerness to take Emilie’s character as read, leaving her high and dry with no back story, and only her mendacious schemes.
It’s true, the road which leads her to readdress the anonymous love letter she receives from Jean to her traumatised and soon-to-be-divorced mother is paved with good intentions. But as she finds herself drinking vodka at work, sacking her secret admirer out of insecurity for his learnedness, chucking away his belongings and treating him like a male escort, Emilie – despite a great performance from Audrey Tautou – never quite manages to win a place in our heart.
By contrast, as Emilie’s mum Maddy, Nathalie Baye is dazzling. Wallowing in a wantonly lonely depression of self-pity after being abandoned by her sculptor husband for a bright young thing twenty years her junior, she’s brought back to life by her daughter’s letter. Forever the artist’s muse, the love letter reanimates her as the object of a lover’s affection, reminding her of her very feminine potency to inspire. By comparison, Emilie is a hairdresser full of neuroses – inspired to goodness only by Jean’s reprehensible indifference while his loving affection only brings out her worst.
As the obscure learned object of desire Jean, Sami Bouajila is discreetly charming; his mandarin tirade at two till-picking coworkers is delivered with sure-footed aplomb, his tentative hesitations between Maddy and Emilie deliciously confused. Only his lapse into loutish good-for-nothingness rings a false note, a necessary plot turn that jars with his reserved erudition.
But beyond its skimpy plotting and hand-brake-turn characterisation, Beautiful Lies works best as a masterclass on filmmaking. There’s the coiffeuring, an art like film cutting that seeks to frame its subject in the best light. Or letter writing – Emilie’s late-night Stolichnaya-fuelled plumbing of the imaginative depths suggestive of Salvadori’s own scriptwriting experiences. While her cold manipulation of her protagonists is most sympathetically understood as a director cajoling his cast. (If this was a Nanni Moretti film, Emilie would probably run a cinema.) In the end, Beautiful Lies is a filmmaker’s farce, its put-upon director jumping through hoops to keep the plot together and to seduce Maddy the star, her artistic slovenliness and made-over slow-mo runway through the streets of Sète proof of her dazzling stardom.
It’s a cinephilia that slips into theatre land too, from the red curtains in the salon that divide their film set into stages to the shadow play that provides the ombre chinoise denouement. And perhaps this kind of farce works better in the proscenium, its crude characters and rushing-through-doors, thrown-to-the-wind plot an enjoyable vaudeville. Pierre Salvadori’s De Vrais Mensonges may lack the retro sophistication of Ozon’s boulevard piece Potiche or the visual fantasy of Jeunet’s Amélie, but it’s a film of frequent, and often quite beautiful, goodbyes.
Beautiful Lies is released in the UK on 12th August 2011