Friday, November 20, 2009

Saved by Baye

Nathalie Baye in A FRENCH GIGOLOG

A French Gigolo
Directed by
Josiane Balasko
Written by Balasko & Franck Lee Joseph
With Nathalie Baye, Eric Caravaca, Josiane Balasko & Isabelle Carré

Josiane Balasko’s farces are quintessentially French—at least in America. Her only other film released here, 1995’s Gauzon Maudit, a lesbian comedy in which she starred opposite Victoria Abril, was retitled French Twist for American audiences; now Cliente, a romp about a male prostitute who beds older women, has become A French Gigolo.

Both French Twist and A French Gigolo take supposed “controversial” subject matter (heterosexual woman turns homosexual in the former, younger gigolo and older client fall in love in the latter) and turn it into fluff, engaging fluff, because Balasko wrings genuine laughs out of implausible situations by smartly casting terrific performers.

In French Twist, Abril was ferociously funny as a happily married woman who discovers same-sex pleasures after discovering her husband’s affairs. In A French Gigolo, the ageless Nathalie Baye plays Judith, popular host of a QVC-type home shopping program who finds herself alone following her divorce. Now 51, she pays for sex with younger male escorts. Then she falls for one of them, Patrick (his real name is Marco, but he wanted a bland name for his secret life).

Balasko’s script plays this situation for laughs, and Baye’s comic portrayal provides them. But the actress does more with less, since the script doesn’t give any believable motivation to this accomplished but unsatisfied woman. Baye—a classy screen presence for three decades since her first major role in Bertrand Tavernier’s heartbreaking A Week’s Vacation—makes A French Gigolo far more watchable than it has any right to be thanks to her stellar underplaying. Judith becomes a lot more than a mere middle-aged caricature, which in a lesser actress’s hands she would be.

Although Eric Caravaca is a good actor (he gave one of the decade’s unsung performances in François Dupeyron’s tragedy, The Officer’s Ward), he seems uncomfortable playing a construction worker-turned-gigolo who somehow keeps his job secret from his loving wife for two years until she happens to answer his cell phone one day. Isabelle Carré brings a genuine sweetness to the underwritten and thankless role of Fanny, who ends up groveling at Judith’s feet to try and win Marco back.

Balasko gives herself the movie’s unlikeliest romance, playing Irène, Judith’s sister and producer of her TV show. Irène is unluckier in love than Judith, at least until she meets Jim (George Aguilar, Balasko’s real-life companion), a Native-American actor. Naturally, they fall immediately in lust, and Irène soon quits and follows Jim to America, from where she emails her sister videos of her cultural assimilation, which are supposed to be hilarious but instead fall flat. Judith, Marco/Patrick, and Fanny all take turns narrating the movie, but the device is mostly strained, since only Judith’s observations are remotely interesting or insightful. That, too, is probably the result of Baye’s brilliance, not her director/co-star’s uneven script.
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