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« Akhmatova, "Вечером" | Main | Some Recollections of Mortality »
Monday
Mar242014

The Bridesmaid

It is said that you can cull the basic structure of a family's relationship from how parents compliment their children. Anyone can criticize you in a moment of weakness with or without justification; but flattery and other such niceties, especially when performed sincerely and in full belief of their declarations, take more of an effort. Complimenting a child too much, it is also thought, may retard the child's emotional growth insofar as he expects only good things to be said about him by everyone else, which as our world has shown us is not usually the case. Yet no praise whatsoever is equally pernicious for, I should hope, quite obvious reasons. What then is the middle road? For better or worse, I am fully convinced that children – at ten, twenty, or fifty – should be given an element of choice and praised when their decisions cost them more than a few blinks of contemplation. Opting not to bully a classmate should be, for a properly raised child, a rather simple affair; cheating when you know you can get away with it, however, is an entirely separate lesson. A child has an inherent moral structure that he senses he should follow (whether this structure was formally inculcated by a parent, teacher, or other older relative is not that important), and despite his squawks of innocence and efforts to recuse himself from decision-making, he understands much more than he would ever let on. When children become young men and women, they are faced with much more serious quandaries – where to work, who to call friends, who to call lovers, and what to think of their parents now that their opinions carry significantly more tonnage. Some people never leave this realm of childhood. They wallow instead in irresponsibility and innocence so stupendous it can only be labeled "below morality," although some of us prefer the term prelapsarian. They expect the hard things in life to be regulated by their progenitors, merely leaving them with the task of selecting their toys and food. And for the family Tardieu, the protagonists of this film, responsibility has long since given way to moral indolence.

The film opens as so many modern films do, with a newsreel about a terrible event: a twenty-one-year-old girl has gone missing from her home in Nantes. The reporter on the scene rattles off a few details before a young man sidles up to the set and promptly switches it off. That man is construction salesman Philippe Tardieu (Benoît Magimel), and turning a blind eye to the impurities of reality has come to be a habit. His younger sisters Sophie (the lovely Solène Bouton) and Patricia (Anna Mihalcea) gape and stare in dismay, first at the horror of losing someone who dated a former schoolmate of theirs, then at Philippe's insistence that they prepare themselves for the arrival of their mother Christine (Aurore Clément). Christine is a widow, a soft touch and a doormat. Watching a game show where pure luck allows a woman to win "money for life," she whispers to Sophie that she couldn't be on that show because she wasn't raised to earn money that way. As a hairdresser, she has to listen to her obnoxious clients rave about better, cheaper salon stylists as well as provide house calls to some of the lazier among them. We are then hardly shocked that she is now attached to a despicable louse named Gérard Courtois (Bernard Le Coq) whom she plans on introducing to her children, age twenty-six, twenty-three, and seventeen, that very night. 

As a symbolic gesture of her break with her past, she also intends on giving Gérard the bust of Flora (who Flora is supposed to be is never clarified, although it is said to resemble Christine), a gift from the children's late father to his beloved wife. The bust has sat in their garden for years on end, and the camera does not shy away from capturing Philippe's alarm at this loss. Soon, it will be the children assuming the role of the parent, asking the age, profession, and status of Gérard, as well as displaying overt skepticism towards the whole enterprise. But before this inevitability comes to pass, Christine parks her scooter, enters their house, and immediately all her attention falls to Philippe. "You are as beautiful as a star," she says, in a quote repeated at a much later point in the film. And her daughters? "You are as beautiful as angels," she coos. And it is clear: a radiant star, alone, as opposed to a heaven full of interchangeable angels, that is how Christine perceives her offspring. In no small coincidence, that is also precisely how they perceive themselves. The titular wedding is Sophie's, her betrothed Jacques being a "simple clerk at city hall" who also happens to volunteer for the fire department. Jacques is an homely fellow, especially considering his fiancée, but he cannot be faulted for being a bad Nantais. In a lesser film, the first scene would feature the bride either trying on her dress or actually minutes away from the ceremony, and her brother among the pews lost in some chain of neurotic thoughts until his eyes came upon one of the bridesmaids – the stock method of plot advancement. Yet Chabrol takes his time, placing all the pieces where they need to be and adjusting them more than once if necessary. By the time the wedding finally takes place we already have an excellent idea of Philippe's obsessive, brooding personality – exactly the type of person who would fall for the wrong woman. And there is, without a doubt, a wrong woman. 

As the wedding proceeds without incident, one bridesmaid catches Philippe's eye, although he might have instinctively been looking in that direction since his girlfriend of sorts was supposed to have been included. One gets the slippery feeling that Philippe's destiny can be solely imputed to his single-minded pursuit of order, lockstep regimen, and bourgeois financial success. He is not a bad person in the criminal sense; yet his ethics have atrophied enough that he cannot distinguish a good girl, one that might make him very happy and rid him of that silly bust he keeps gazing at then hiding like a dirty magazine, from a bad girl. Alas, he finds something far worse than that in Jacques's wayward cousin Senta (Laura Smet, the daughter of this actress and this famous singer). Her real name is Stephanie, although she changes it, Sophie informs us, every six months and cannot be bothered with the banal details of daily life like sewing on a blue flower to that prime example of conformity, her bridesmaid gown. She derives her exotic looks from an Icelandic mother who died at childbirth, a story straight-shooter Jacques readily confirms and one that puts Philippe's mind, so prone to conflict avoidance and blocking out any form of improbity, at ease. The wrong woman, however, has other plans. After eyeing him up throughout the brief and dull reception, she sits alone at the table of her cousins waiting for something to happen. The desired event occurs when she inexplicably turns up at his doorstep soaking wet and ready for any type of action his limbs might be able to handle. To justify her impetuousness, she confesses to being an actress (preferring acteur to the allegedly sexist actrice and comédienne, with the former referring to movie stars), and reminds him that Senta is the heroine's name in this famous opera. This and whatever else slips out of her mouth in the throes of passion or at any other time cannot be verified. 

Nor, for that matter, does Philippe have any immediate interest in discovering the truth. He doesn't really want to disbelieve anything she says; he wants, in fact, the most preposterous batch of lies possible because what he lacks in his life is imagination. She strings him along so shamelessly that he actually seems enthralled by her mountain of distortions, that everything she could be saying is probably rubbish, and by trying, quite passively, to detect what if any of the details of her life are genuine. We all know men like Philippe, men who lack imagination and always tell the truth, embarrassed about their few personal details that they don't want to make public, and anxious to believe others because it is through others that they experience the lies and fantasy that they do not dare to expound themselves. A nice twist intervenes when Philippe at long last calls Senta a bare-faced liar (he does it in the gentlest possible way: he suggests she write screenplays) to which she predictably writhes in indignation. From this point on, the twists are superseded by far less subtle plot devices that border on the ludicrous stuff we find in more commercial cinema. But Magimel is wonderful throughout, ever mumbling underneath his breath about some repressed emotion, seconds from bursting although he never really gives full vent to his feelings (after reluctantly handing over the bust, for example, he almost walks into Gérard as if he were sniffing him and about to bite him). There are far too many bright spots to be distracted by Senta's asinine existentialist theories and the incestuous fact that her last name, Bellange, is a homophone of "beautiful angel." Is that why, when Philippe is about to leave to a fateful dinner with Senta, he appears before his mother dressed to the nines and is offered the same compliment as before? This time he agrees, although he should be thinking of star-crossed lovers instead.

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