He loves her. She loves acting.
When one thinks of romantic comedy, the mind rarely drifts towards the realm of French films. Yet, on the heels of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Le Fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain (Amelie) comes an engaging case of art imitating life. Writer/director/actor Yvan Attal has crafted a beautiful semi-autobiographical tale about a man who struggles with the complexities of being married to a famous actress—played by Attal's real wife Charlotte Gainsbourg. Overlooked by both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, Ma femme est une actrice (My Wife is an Actress) is a sweet, comical look at life, love, and filmmaking from a uniquely European perspective.
Facts of the Case
Yvan (Yvan Attal, At Dawning) is a successful sportswriter married to beloved French film star Charlotte (Charlotte Gainsbourg, 21 Grams). Choosing to look the other way and enjoy the normalcy of their life, Yvan has never truly acknowledged her fame. However, when Charlotte's latest project—a steamy romance—finds her cast opposite notorious British ladies man John (Terrance Stamp, The Collector), Yvan begins to question just how solid the line is between on-camera fantasy and off-camera reality. Mild jealousy quickly turns to rampant comic paranoia, as we journey back and forth across the English Channel in fits of love and neuroses.
There is something unusual about the life of an actor. Well…actually there's more than one thing, but only one we need to be concerned with here. In what other career do you spend the majority of your time pretending to be someone else creating relationships with other people also pretending to someone else? Professional actors know the characters and relationships they create on stage or on camera are fictitious and business-like, existing only for a brief moment in time. However, if successful, they are able to convince audiences otherwise.
This poses a potential problem for people in relationships with actors. When you see a loved one on stage or film engaging in relations with someone other than you, human nature takes over and imaginations begin to dangerously wonder just what goes on behind the scenes. With the seed of doubt planted by his sister's (Noémie Lvovsky) former lover Georges (Lionel Abelanski), Yvan quickly falls prey to this trap, never stopping to consider the impact his suspicions and accusations might have on the woman who loves him. After all, how many times can Charlotte respond to the same line of questioning before she begins to wonder whether their relationship is worth all this grief? In effect, Yvan has created a self-fulfilling prophecy—comically drawing to him that which he is obsessing about.
Using his 1997 short film I Got a Woman as a foundation, Attal crafts a humorous and touching love story with encounters and dialogue that are almost Seinfeld-ian in nature. Taking seemingly normal situations and pulling out the inherent humor we often overlook when they are happening to us. Dealing with days where nothing seems to go right, mediating the strained relationship between an expecting sister and brother-in-law, taking an acting class to experience and understand her career, dangerously flirting with a younger woman, and blindly driving full speed into all the crazy things love makes us do.
In partnership with cinematographer Remy Chevin, Attal paints a colorfully different version of Paris and London than we are used to seeing. These major metropolitan cities become intimate, mirroring the relationship shared between Yvan and Charlotte. Nothing about this film is grandiose or self-important. It's simple, sweet, and to the point. Even the performances exhibit a subtle strength. Yvan Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg share a pleasant chemistry, illuminating the ups and downs of a young marriage. Noémie Lvovsky and Laurent Bateau, as Yvan's sister and brother-in-law, display explosive comedic timing and intense character flaws as two people who love each other as much as they annoy the hell out of one another. Finally, Terrance Stamp and the entire supporting English cast are magnificently understated, allowing the humor of the situation to come forward naturally, without the brazen overacting of their French counterparts.
From a technical perspective, the film exhibits art house flair, slightly on the grainy side but free from dirt and digital interference. Pay particular attention to the use of rapid framing during Yvan's "birth of a flower" performance in acting class. The color palate is comprised of muted shades of blues, yellows, reds, and greens with more vibrancy found in London than in Paris. The blacks spring forth emphatically within the night scenes and during Yvan's train rides. While the visuals are nice, the music plays a featured role in the film, spotlighting the jazz stylings and talents of American musician Brad Mehldau. This is one of those films that would look and feel completely different with an alternate underscore. If you love jazz, I highly recommend picking up the soundtrack. The film makes the most of its 2.0 audio track, with the full realization that a 5.1 treatment would have been a waste of time and money for this dialogue centric tale.
The bonus features included are slightly more than one might expect, but a tad uneven. Attal's feature commentary (in French with subtitles) is humorous and self-deprecating. His demeanor is quite engaging and makes watching the film a second time quite entertaining. Unfortunately, Attal makes reference to several pieces of supplementary material—such as his short film I Got a Woman—which, for whatever reason, were not included here. The 16 minute "Making Of" featurette underscores many of the same themes touched on in the director's commentary, just in a more easily digestible format. Four deleted scenes are also included, although none of them are worth much of your time. In fact, the extended London cab ride sequence can be used as a sleep inducer for those of you who suffer from insomnia. The package is rounded out with an original theatrical trailer and a bevy of trailers for Columbia's foreign film portfolio.
While many American audiences have yet to discover the wealth of entertainment found in foreign films, My Wife is an Actress is the perfect starting point. With a thoroughly enjoyable story, exceptional performances, and half of the film presented in English, it makes for an excellent weekend rental. At $29.95, you would truly have to treasure the film to make the investment. It's good, but not that good.
This court, along with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, hereby absolves ma femme est une actrice of any criminal allegations and extends to Yvan Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg indefinite visas to showcase their talents within the United States. Joie de vie! Cette cour est excusée.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Yvan Attal (subtitled)
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