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A French Gigolo is one of those French movies that's all about sex without actually being very sexy. That's because the characters tend to talk about and think about their relationships more than they participate in them on screen. That's not to say the movie lacks emotion. It is, though, a more thoughtful treatment of the characters' dilemma than the plot synopsis might suggest.
Facts of the Case
Judith (Nathalie Baye, Le Petit Lieutenant) is the host and owner of a home shopping TV show. Divorced, she is no longer hoping to find love. To satisfy her need for physical intimacy, about twice each month, Judith hires male escorts on the Internet for some afternoon delight. She rarely repeats her selection but that changes when Judith meets Marco (Eric Caravaca, Son Frère). Their first encounter is a disaster but something about Marco's sheepish charm keeps Judith wanting more.
Marco is actually an unemployed laborer whose familial responsibilities have driven him to market his other skills. Using the excuse that he's painting a rich client's house, Marco spends his afternoons servicing wealthy, older women. Contributing to his mother-in-law's mortgage and covering the rent for his wife's beauty salon, he is the portrait of a successful and attentive husband. When his wife Fanny (Isabelle Carré, Private Fears in Public Places) discovers his secret life, it threatens the stability of everyone's lifestyle.
The movie's English title, A French Gigolo, and its original French title, Cliente, are both imperfect representations of this story's perspective. The former suggests Marco is the protagonist while the latter positions Judith as the movie's subject. Both angles are true in a sense but they fail to account for the third point of view of the movie, that of Marco's wife. Marco, Judith and Fanny all share time as the main voice of the story. Viewers are afforded access to their thoughts as the three of them alternately provide voice over narration in scenes. This is a very effective storytelling device since what each character does reveals just a shade of their true intentions.
Marco acts like his secret career is entirely professional but he harbors some discontent about his current domestic life. Judith says she is no longer seeking love in her life and men serve only a single function for her. Yet, she's a lonely person despite her successful TV show and her personal liberty. Fanny is conflicted over preserving her marriage and protecting the quality of life she is enjoying. Once the truth is known about Marco's double life, the three of them are drawn into each other's power play. They all conduct themselves like logic guides them but it's only a matter of time before their true emotions surface.
There is a scene when Judith and Marco meet in a public park soon after Fanny has discovered his source of income. Marco explains why he won't be taking any more calls from Judith. It's a professional courtesy to inform his client of the change in situation, but it's also plain to see he's looking to talk to someone. Yet, he cannot unload his dilemma on Judith, nor can he express his sadness that he'll no longer see Judith, a woman who represents the sophistication and success that is lacking in his own domestic life. In response, Judith simply says she hopes he'll call her when he's back in the business. With her too, it's clear that there is something she cannot say. Some viewers may find this to be a very cold depiction of a relationship but it's also, for these characters, a mature handling of the situation. What else can they do but resolve their business relationship on professional terms? Though we, as viewers, may want to see them behave differently, this is the appropriate course of action for them. That cold tone is one of the ways this movie distinguishes itself from other tales of complicated love triangles. The delicate balance between what the characters really want and what they actually do creates a dramatic tension that is sexy in its own way.
Nathalie Baye is radiant as Judith, effortlessly portraying a complicated woman not as a cynic but as a realist. On the surface, Judith seems like a tough customer, but Baye deftly reveals her softer qualities, suggesting she may not be entirely happy with her personal life but she's making the best of it. Caravaca and Carré give good performances as the young couple whose happy home life is predicated on the husband's continual cash flow. They're flawed characters who make difficult choices and they deal with those choices like grown ups. To offset the serious relationship drama, director Josiane Balasko (Gazon Maudit) also stars as Irene, Judith's sister and producer, who gets into a relationship with a guest on their TV show. She adds a welcome dose of optimism and joy as counter-point to the economic realities suffered by the other characters.
The DVD offers no special features aside from a trailer but the transfer is very good. The video features strong colors and the image is free of any digital defects. The audio is treated to a 5.1 surround mix that is decent though hardly necessary. Dialogue is clear and the soundscape is very frontal.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While I admire the portrayal of the characters and how their interactions with one another aren't entirely true reflections of how they feel, perhaps they are a little too reserved. The few scenes when they let their guard down—emotionally charged confrontations or private moments when they don't have to keep up appearances—are all the more powerful because we know these people are thinkers more than doers. Still, a few more glimpses of their vulnerabilities might have made them seem less cold.
The story of a young couple's marriage being threatened by a third party isn't new territory but A French Gigolo offers a fresh take on the situation. The movie handles the characters' conflicting desires and incongruent actions in a truthful manner. This helps to make them seem more real even when they act so cold.
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