Mechanical as Chic!’s story is, it is rare to have this kind of French fluff put across with so much charm and vivacity.
By Paul Dervis
It’s rare that you start off watching a film and hating every frame, yet end up falling in love with the movie, but that is exactly what happened to me with Chic!, which screens tomorrow (July 23) as part of the 20th Annual French Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
What is not to like? How about a storyline that couldn’t be more derivative, a plot as old as the first talking picture. Chic! starts off as a vapid tale about the problems of well-off, beautiful, and empty-headed people. The fashion house RICOSI is at the center of the action. Designer Alicia has just been dumped by her latest flavour de jour, and as a result of the heartbreak she cannot create, even as the most important show of the season nears. RICOSI’s head honcho tells his top underling, Helene, to fix the situation or she will be given her walking papers. She auditions various models to apply for the boyfriend position, and finds a suitable suitor. But Alicia doesn’t take to him; she ends up grabbing a man on her own. The catch is that he is Helene’s landscaper, whom she just fired. Eating crow, she begs him to come back with promises of much loot.
Where this familiar French farce set-up goes from here is completely predictable. But mechanical as the story is, it is rare to have this kind of fluff put across with so much charm and vivacity. The key is the superb performers. So what if the three leads are handed vacuous caricatures to play? They torch the cliches and create vivid, three-dimensional characters on their own.
Marina Hands plays Helene with panache. The figure starts off as a totally stuck up semi-celeb, but slowly and surely, kicking and screaming the entire way, her superficialities are peeled away. By the end of the film we are facing a woman with deep insecurities, who has never before taken a step she didn’t orchestrate in advance. Now she is learning to walk — spontaneously — for the first time.
Fanny Ardant, widowed partner of director Francois Truffaut, has acted in nearly ninety projects, including his The Woman Next Door. Here, she is a sheer delight. An artist with the gift of self-awareness (“I am manipulative, etc”), she doesn’t relish her negative traits, but she is honest enough to acknowledge them.
Eric Elmosnino, as Julien the gardener, is a most unlikely paramour. The actor somehow manages to invest magic into the ridiculous lines that the scrawny, scruffy laborer has to deliver …and Elmosino convinces you that these ‘beautiful people’ could love this character as much as they do.
Director Jérôme Cornuau, whose body of work is heavily concentrated in television, uses the lightness and pacing demanded by that medium to keep the silly story moving. And it works.
And that is despite such risible dialogue as “I only ran a red light…I hate red!” and “He even has a German accent in his text messages.” The punch lines are memorably cheap: a character actually says, concerning a fundraiser for earthquake victims, “we’ll send money to the deceased.” Yet Chic! never bores because its performances are tight and top notch. And the humor, though often lame, is delivered in a way that makes it seem fresh….it even makes us (or at least me) laugh.
Be warned: this is no Prêt-à-Porter, a Robert Altman classic, or even a The Devil Wears Prada. It has none of the sly cleverness of those films. But for a movie about a dishonest, superficial world, Chic! is remarkably … sincere. And when you can fake that …
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.