This romantic comedy from French director Pierre Salvadori, working once again with actress Audrey Tautou after 2006’s Priceless (Hors de prix), struggles from its opening moments to reconcile its light, airy, south of France setting with the over-worked contrivances of both its narrative and its well-intentioned but heavy-handed attempts in performance to wring every last comic beat from its almost entirely unsympathetic cast of characters. Re-appropriating Austen-esque devices such as anonymous love letters and misguided matchmaking attempts, as well as the kind of overheard conversations, misunderstandings and coincidental plot mechanics synonymous with French farce, it’s clear that Salvadori lacks the delicate touch required to make these elements of his screenplay and staging work to any real degree of success.
When salon owner Emilie (Tautou) receives an eloquently written but unsigned love letter from her lovesick handyman employee Jean (an excellent Sami Bouajila), she immediately throws it in the dustbin. But unable to find the right moment to let her separated mother know that her father is now engaged to his newly pregnant 20 year old girlfriend, she fishes the letter out of the bin and copies it out in full on her laptop, this time addressing the anonymous letter to her. Clinging to the hope of reconciliation with her husband for the past four years, her mother Maddy (Nathalie Baye) is immediately rejuvenated by the idea of a secret admirer, and Emilie finds her initial deceit compounded as she struggles to write the desired follow-up letters without Jean’s especially romantic turns-of-phrase. When Emilie sends Jean out to post the mail, including a letter for her mother she’s been up all night writing, he decides to hand deliver the letter in question to her nearby home. Glimpsed by the impatiently waiting Maddy as he drops it through her door, who now believes that the increasingly suggestive correspondences came from his hand, Emilie finds herself caught in a web of lies from which she can only extricate herself with Jean’s reluctant help.
Beautiful Lies is certainly a lovely film to look at, the summery location and wonderfully lit cinematography by Salvadori regular Gilles Henry coupled with the attentively colourful art direction give the picture a certain visual flair, even if sometimes a little overcooked (the opening credit sequence in which Jean watches Emilie through panels of different coloured glass especially), but the camera direction itself and editing work are for the most part merely functional and pedestrian.
The real problem, however, lies with both screenplay and performance. Whilst Jean, on whose letter the narrative initially fixes, is likeable enough (although a second act switch in character tests both believability and allegiance) the film soon enough pushes Emilie to the forefront as the protagonist with whose self-constructed dilemma we’re encouraged to relate. Tautou’s Emilie is a neurotic, uptight, wholly unlikeable creation and it’s hard to understand why we’d for one moment wish that the course of true love would result in Jean ending up with such a self-serving manipulator. Salvadori doesn’t help matters by encouraging us to laugh at her lonely, depressed mother, alternately described by Emilie as “a bit crazy” or looking like she “just escaped from an asylum”, although with Baye playing Maddy for every laugh possible, it’s hard not to sympathise with Jean when he refers to her as “a bit frightening”. It’s a style of performance that extends to the peripheral cast as well, with salon receptionist Paulette (Judith Chemla) working especially hard through an array of nervous tics to milk every last comic beat missing from the page.
Whilst the eventual resolution may be well telegraphed in terms of Emilie and Jean, the coincidences and contrivances of the narrative to get us there prove simply irritating, with Maddy’s pay-off in the final moments as she’s hoisted into the air by a photographer who feels she “embodies the very image of vitality” verging on the ridiculous. It’s the lack of sympathy for anyone but Jean (for whom you spend the duration wondering why he doesn’t just run a mile from the crazy women with whom he inexplicably surrounds himself) that makes Salvadori’s film such a drag. The title kind of says it all, there's little truth here, even if it does look beautiful.
Beautiful Lies (De vrais mensanges) – 2010 – France – 101 mins – Dir : Pierre Salvadori