Though a long-time fan of both Jean Reno and Juliette Binoche, I confess the thought of casting them opposite one another in a romantic comedy never occurred.
In American films Reno has rarely been assigned roles in which he interacts with women. Plus, in retrospect, his presence and demeanor seem to have been contrived to establish the actor's asexuality.
Considering America's long-standing xenophobia and recent Francophobia, not to mention our Freudian demand for enormous vehicles with totally butch names, perhaps it is too much of a challenge to the American male ego to have a Frenchman (you know what they say about them!) depicted wooing an American female. Conversely, an American man and a French woman ooh, la la! (See below for such a film starring Binoche.)
Nevertheless, to have enjoyed Reno's performance in "Ronin" (1998) is to have recognized that although we never saw his character, Vincent, in a romantic context there were surely women out there who have succumbed to his Gallic charms.
To our good fortune director Dani?le Thompson has made a French film (English subtitles) and thereby sidestepped these cultural constraints.
In turn, fans of Reno will discover the actor has a much greater emotional range and, after the makeup and hairdo people did their tricks, a far more youthful appearance as well. One scene, during which he mimes a phone conversation, is particularly revelatory: we discover a far more human side of the actor, a convincing evocation of a man suffering the joyous uncertainties of love.
And who better to fall in love with than Juliette Binoche?
In this instance, as is often the case, it is fate that brings these two stranded airline passengers together.
Her head decorated like the sort of eye candy seen on the arm of Frank or Dino or any of the rest of the Rat Pack as they wined and dined their nights away in Vegas during the '60s, Rose (Binoche) is clearly frantic about something. It seems she's left someone a goodbye note and is hopping a flight to Acapulco except all the flights are grounded.
We discover much about Rose, as we do about so many other total strangers these days, through her one-sided cell phone conversation. The same holds true for our initial introduction to F?lix (Reno).
There is someone with whom he shares or has shared an extended family, this we know. But because of the nature of our introduction to his relationship question marks abound.
Though, as in real life, Rose is surrounded by a multitude chatting away merrily to distant acquaintances, when something happens to her cell phone, whose do you suspect she borrows?
And, our electronic age being what it is, everyone with whom Rose has spoken now has F?lix's cell phone number. Things become increasingly complicated.
Because of this inadvertent and unsolicited intimacy (ownership of the diabolical device compels F?lix to remain nearby) when he is offered a first class room at the Hilton (F?lix travels first class) and catches sight of Rose sleeping on an airport bench, he offers her the comfort of said suite.
The film could not remain a romantic comedy if huffing and puffing immediately ensued.
Rather, he's in a bad mood, she's in a bad mood and they're sharing a room. Things do not go well.
Incisive pot shots are taken and the gloves come off. She doesn't like this about him and he doesn't like this about her. They fight (verbally, emotionally) and she runs off. But we care. We don't want her to go. We know she is making a mistake.
Will he let her go? Can these good, decent people overcome their individual emotional scars and find that love we know is theirs to share?
At this point in the film we discover we have a vested interest in Rose and F?lix. The director and the actors have won us over. The film is a success.
But it is not a great success. Given the cast and the premise it could be better.
Such reservations may be cultural, however. It could be the ne plus ultra of romantic comedies in France and simply not translate perfectly to American tastes. Or it could be the director.
My money's on the director. It's hard to say precisely where she falls short, perhaps because it isn't by much, but I should have felt even warmer, even fuzzier.
There is one interesting and essentially unrelated subject worthy of address: Binoche's nudity.
In a recent review I spoke of so many films featuring the gratuitous nudity of starlets whose film careers seem to exist solely for the purpose of getting them to undress on camera. I assumed repressed, voyeuristic male directors to be the source of this exploitation. Until now.
Nevertheless, those who revel in Binoche's beauty and not simply female beauty will find the film most rewarding when she washes all that makeup off her face and the lacquer out of her hair.
At this moment, even as F?lix first discovers Rose's true beauty we are reminded of that which separates Binoche from the simply pretty. For those concerned with such things, she's a few months shy of 40.
Enjoy the actors, enjoy the film, enjoy yourselves.
Celluloid memories: Juliette Binoche offers a wonderful performance in the romantic, seductive "Chocolat" (2000), directed by Lasse Hallstr?m. The film (in English) co-stars Alfred Molina, Carrie-Ann Moss, Lena Olin, Judi Dench and Johnny Depp. A mystical, magical exploration of sensuality, lovers young and old will find it intoxicating. Another gifted director, Luc Besson, has made good use of Monsieur Reno. Both extremely violent films about assassins (and both written by Besson), they deserve to be seen in their wide screen unedited DVD versions. Start with "La Femme Nikita" (1991) in French with English subtitles. The American remake is junk. This one will knock you over. Though Reno has a small part you will never forget it. Besson made Reno the focus of "The Professional" (1994 - in English), in which he co-stars with a totally unhinged Gary Oldman (just the way we like him!), Natalie Portman (in her early teens), and Danny Aiello. Both are terrific guy flicks!