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A Woody Allen-style French romantic comedy

Love is just a kiss away

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Frédérique Bel and Emmanuel Mouret in Shall We Kiss - PHOTO COURTESY OF MUSIC BOX FILMS

Shall We Kiss opens Friday in select theaters

The opening of Emmanuel Mouret's highly enjoyable, deceptively light comedy Shall We Kiss is irresistible: An attractive, blond, 30-ish woman passes a nice-looking man on the street and asks for help hailing a cab. She's from Paris, visiting Nantes on business. The man replies that there are no cabs in the area. She thanks him and walks off.

The man looks after her, realizing that this is a fleeting moment of romantic—and cinematic—possibility. He calls after her and gives her a lift to her destination. Then, it's dinner at a restaurant, conversation and cigarettes, and then they're back at her hotel.

Will they or won't they, we wonder? We're just a few minutes into the film, but then the film hits us with one of the oldest devices in literature: the story within a story, told by a stranger. This blond woman, called Émilie (Julie Gayet), proceeds to tell Gabriel (Michaël Cohen) a long tale that, she says, will explain why he can't give his newfound friend a goodnight kiss.

The story that follows consumes the bulk of the movie and concerns a feckless, romantic naïf called Nicolas (played by director Mouret) and his best friend, a sweet, pretty and very married woman named Judith (Virginie Ledoyen). The two of them, we're told, have been innocent confidants for years. Then one day, Nicolas, in a fit of desperation for sensual company, asks Judith to provide it—as a friend, of course, just as you might ask a friend to look after you when you're ill. Mouret films their attempts at a sexual cure with dry restraint (he avoids prurience, as well as pratfalls) that yields to a well-earned shot of cinematic ecstasy.

Of course, the two embark upon an affair, but they're so cluelessly solipsistic and convinced of their own good faith that they have little conception of the damage their relationship could do to others. What concern they do have for Judith's husband (Stefano Accorsi) and Nicolas' girlfriend Caline (Frédérique Bel, in the film's most memorable performance) is couched in a patronizing manner: They need to find a gentle way to get these inconvenient obstacles out of their lives without hurting them.

The self-absorption of Judith and Nicolas is intentionally farcical; the tale, in Mouret's conception, recalls the boulevard yarns of Guy de Maupassant, whose deluded, foolish lovers were often quickly sketched caricatures. However, the consequences of foolish behavior can be grave—the combination of humor, sex, farcicality and serious outcomes are what gives such stories their enduring value.

Mouret is in his late 30s and has made a handful of movies in France; this film is his first wide exposure in America. By starring in his own film as a schlubby, neurotic but sweet romantic leading man, he has drawn obvious comparisons to Woody Allen. (The literary distancing devices, too, are similar.) But Mouret operates in a more restrained key. The intellectual furniture is there, literally, in the form of a huge portrait of Franz Schubert, whose music engulfs numerous scenes; the urbane, erudite voiceovers; and overstuffed bookcases in every character's home. As in Allen's films, too, we see that all the principal characters have jobs: Nicolas is a schoolteacher, Claudio is a pharmacist, Caline is a flight attendant. They're incidental details that establish them as ordinary French people who have the time to pursue their nation's true vocation: having affairs and philosophizing about matters of the heart.

But the two directors share weaknesses, too. Like Woody's New York, Mouret's French cities are rarefied adult playgrounds with museums, wine bars, tennis clubs and no children anywhere. Nor do there seem to be any people of color in Paris or New York.

But despite such limitations of imagination, the emergence of a sprightly talent from France is something to celebrate. A certain sclerosis has taken hold in the country that produced Jean Renoir and Francois Truffaut. There's the always-appreciated but hardly new filmmakers like Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol—three old New Wavers who have a combined age of 248, and have made 154 movies; and then the (relatively) younger filmmakers like Olivier Assayas, Catherine Breillat and Arnaud Desplechin who are well-schooled and full of ideas, but whose films—not to put too fine a point on it—sometimes suffer from a surfeit of avant self-regard and a dearth of curb appeal.

Recently, however, the most commercially successful French films have been pleasant froth like Priceless and The Valet and overwrought generic thrillers like Tell No One. On the evidence of Shall We Kiss, anyway, Mouret seems like someone who can make thoughtful, witty and sexy movies that we used to think the French made all the time.

His film is sometimes too cute—the prostitute who turns out to be a mathematics grad student is a little much—and yes, we see the film's final revelation coming. But this plot twist only sets up a haunting final shot—a kiss, the most cinematic and intimate of moments—that lingers in the mind after the film fades to black. It's a somber, almost pessimistic ending that leaves us wondering, What is it about humans that being happy is never enough? And why is it so hard to embark upon erotic expeditions—a pursuit of tenderness and ardor—without hurting others that you love?

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