A film review of DELICACY / LA DÉLICATESSE and interview with directors David and Stéphane Foenkinos
by Timothy E. RAW
I was talking to writer/director Christophe Honoré recently about a particularly effecting scene in his latest film, Beloved, in which a family silently grieve the loss of a loved one. I asked him how he was able to coax such feelings of numb disbelief and desperate loss out of his ensemble. Apparently no notes were given or direction needed, he simply relied on the fact that many of the actors had been in this same situation in their own lives and trusted them to draw on that experience.
Two sentences in, David Foenkinos' bestselling novel Delicacy makes oblique reference to the mistake of its subsequent film adaptation:
"She'd gone through adolescence without trauma and she respected crosswalks."
Relying on an actress lacking the relevant emotional experience almost proves the undoing of the film adaptation before it's barely begun. In the video interview following this review, sibling directors David and Foenkinos point out that Tautaou, in her own life, has not suffered anything remotely close to the bereavement of her character Natalie, a woman whose world is turned upside down after the sudden death of her husband. Of course, to hold an absence of personal tragedy against the star would be ridiculous, but just like Natalie before this tragic occurrence, Tautou's cinematic life up to this point has been relatively trauma-free, characterized by innocuous whimsy and charmed femininity.
At one point in the novel, Natalie is described as "a woman who cancels out other women" and for this writer they may as well be talking about Tautou herself. As the reigning big-screen pixie-chick ideal, I'll risk all credibility and freely admit going to Tautou films more expectant for her impeccable and faultless style than the story. You'd be right to scoff of course, but consider the opening of Delicacy and the way in which the camera fetishizes the star's elfin ears, summery flower print shirt, Paddington Bear duffle coat, bobbing pony tail, and that loose wisp of hair tracing the curve of her neck – all in adulating close-up. Adoringly cataloging her every perfection in this manner makes it clear that Tautou's is a beauty to be marveled at, not tortured, a prevailing sentiment carried over to many of her roles: this is Audrey Tautou, none more adorable. Nothing bad can happen to Audrey Tatou – what director in their right mind would even dream such a thing?! Tautou's screen traumas are only ever those certain to work themselves out in the end, and like crosswalk-respecting Natalie, Tautou herself, it seems, has some equally quirky traits, sharing celluloid avatar Amélie's fondness for Polaroids, taking instant nostalgia snaps of each and every journalist who interviews her.
It's on this point in particular that Delicacy identifies itself as a continuation of the twinkling preciousness of Tautou films past. The montage of Natalie's fairytale romance with soon-to-be-deceased husband Francois (Pio Marmaï) explicitly reminds us of Amélie with its use of polaroids and swirling, giddy camera moves that cause the heart to palpitate with an escapist flutter. Unfortunately, the similarity to its forbearer is so impossible to ignore that it distracts from any investment in the couple's relationship or the sudden loss, which resonates no feeling of shock or devastation. The montage plays less like a record of cherished memories and more like a caricature of Audrey's greatest hits, exaggerating something already heightened to begin with. When visual indulgence skirts this close to cartoon, it's one step away from Tautou's bauble-like face peering out of a Teletubby costume.
The film switches gears after Francois is hit by a car while out jogging, and as a study of how death leaves its trace everywhere for those left behind, Delicacy is content to settle for broad stroke gestures; tableaux that signifies sorrow without authentic expression. Sullen leathery is communicated visually by a lack of make-up, expressionistic lighting and an insistent soundtrack, and while Tautou faithfully recreates a "face contorted by grief" right out of the novel's pages, the fixed features are vacant, but not ruined. We understand perfectly what she's conveying here – a woman unable to cry because the pain has drained everything away – but what's seen is often very hard to feel. Too often her circumspect state of blankness feels like an actress hitting her marks, a mechanised mode guaranteeing there's never any danger of sobbing into your popcorn. Nowhere near as caught up as I was willing myself to be, I started to think of what a young Juliette Binoche circa 1993 could have done with such a part, having so wrenchingly plumbed similar depths in Kieślowski's Bleu. Binoche has unquestionably got the dramatic chops, as well as the hot chocolate, heart-melting smile to match Amélie, whereas Tautou, carrying a lot of weight with her past work, hasn't yet built up the kind of resume where she can convincingly wallow in depression. That co-director Stephane Foenkinos was a former big time casting agent makes this fundamental misstep doubly disappointing -- though he and his brother deserve applause for taking a risk, looking beyond typecasting and offering a bankable name a suitable challenge not a million miles outside of her comfort zone. What surely seemed like a great idea on paper must, in the end, be chalked up as a failed attempt, albeit a worthy one.
Having now read the source novel, I was surprised to find that nothing significant was excised, and structurally the film is very faithful. Strange, given how rushed the 'grieving widow' section feels in the adaptation. An abrupt hard cut to three years later has the unconscious whiff of the filmmakers wanting to get on with telling the comic romance to which Tatou is better suited, and that people have no doubt paid to see.
The coming together of the physically unpleasant, Salvation Army-dressed Markus (François Damiens, looking not unlike Richard O'Brien's Riff-Raff from Rocky Horror Picture Show) and the inaccessibly perfect Natalie through a supposedly impulsive kiss feels false, forced, and painfully contrived. Natalie's sudden return to the office is an act of forcibly forgetting the past through the anaesthesia of work, but Tautou doesn't show us glimpses of how one emotion hides another; that underneath the 9 to 5 stoicism, there's a desperate need to be physically desired again from a position of strength (she rejects her bosses' advances for preying on her widowed fragility). Such desperation, made explicit in the novel, neatly explains the unthinking implausibility of the kiss, but here it never convinces, not least because the scene is played for easy laughs, emphasizing Markus' shocked reaction, eyes bulging like a Hannah Barbra sketch. In this key scene, the Foenkinos ask us to suspend disbelief beyond its elastic limit but once Natalie and Markus are established as a couple, the actors' natural chemistry and the script's forthright commentary on the inequality of their pairing brings uncommon truthfulness in a genre where relationship banter rarely manages mask the grinding gears of plot.
Oh-so-French peculiarity is tempered by a persistent melancholy drift, and even as the couple are in the full flush of reciprocated passion, Markus remains frankly self-aware. He knows he's viewed as utterly insignificant by his co-workers (a full-tilt running gag centres on his invisibility to others, only heightened by beautiful-girl-with-ugly-guy incredulity once he hooks up with Natalie), but as portrayed by Damiens, Markus is smarter than your average paunchy sadsack or pratfalling buffoon. Unassumingly suave and more inwardly self-assured than we first imagine, in the end it's a misconstrued wry sense of humour and double-barrelled enthusiasm that trips him up socially. Markus looks a certain way and people respond in kind, but you gotta admire a guy who pushes that down deep, takes it on the chin and tries his best not to let it get him down. Largely existing in the background, he's not afraid to give it the old college try when others deem worthy to engage him. And even at the height of happiness, Markus is nothing if not a realist. Society tells us that a girl like that doesn't go for a guy like him and who's he to think otherwise? Walking around as if he's got a counterfeit lottery ticket burning a hole in his pocket, there's always the possibility that Natalie might come to her senses and pull the plug at any moment. Resisting the delirium of her unforeseen attentions, Markus remains respectful while trying not to fall in love.
Ostensibly Natalie's story, Markus' private pains are the more involving of the two. In some small way I'm convinced the brothers feel this too, as there's a definite hand-off in the consciousness of the film in the final reel. What begins as a coupling perceived and judged by others, ends with the sense of the relationship seen through his eyes.
The feelings of insignificance and uncertainty that Markus wrestles with for the majority of the film are likewise felt by Charles, the jilted boss also under Natalie's spell and brilliantly played by Bruno Todeschini. A more fully developed character in the book, Todeschini does just as much with heavily truncated screen time, efficiently sketching a victim of misplaced desire. Positioned as the sleaze ball love rival, Todeschini finds the lovelorn logic in Charles' selfishness, lashing out because he feels threatened. Watching him overstep the mark is to watch a man drowning in years of repressed feelings suddenly uncorked, but in no way reciprocated. Natalie's eventual rejection of Charles in a claws-out manner is much more Neil LaBute than French soufflé.
I went for Audrey Tautou looking gamine and fabulous and that's what I got. What I never expected was a Gallic charmer edged with heartfelt sadness; a quality successfully translated from the book and worth a thousand rom-coms in any language. The attempt at extending Tautou's range and subverting her cutesy image is worthy but lacks the complexity of the performances by Damiens and Todeschini, both memorable enough to make up for the star miscasting. As the story of a woman mending her wounded heart, it's the grief of her suitors that lends Delicacy's romance a refreshingly bittersweet taste.
This exclusive interview with David and Stéphane Foenkinos was conducted for Cine Outsider by Timothy E. RAW at Studio Canal in London on Friday 23rd March 2012.
Our thanks to Zoe Flower of Emfoundation and Holly Rosenblatt of Organic Marketing for their help in arranging this interview.