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French Kiss-Off

That Amélie girl returns with the yucky side of cute romance

Apart from "I Am Fascinating" and "My Parents Are Horrid," the reigning theme of film students' movies is "Lovers Are Bonkers." Therefore it comes as no surprise when a director's first feature contains many elements that'll be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever hung around a film school. So it is with Laetitia Colombani's He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (A la folie ... pas du tout), literally "To madness ... not at all"), a confident but obvious effort proffering the usual notions of delusion, obsession and sociopathy. With its histrionics and telegraphed "twists," it's strictly a Bonkers 101 affair, but one delivered with Gallic elegance and charm.

Of course, the main attraction here is Audrey Tautou, the now wildly-marketable star of Amélie (a role originally intended for tragic/romantic ace Emily Watson). Except for its snide, irrelevant swipe at desert-dwelling Arabs, scintillating Amélie is one of the greatest things since sliced baguette, so Tautou's primary challenge is to avoid disappointing fans. Here and in the somewhat soul-searchingly similar God Is Great, I'm Not she plays far less cartoony characters, and her caprices are no longer strictly childlike. She's still the goggle-eyed little bug you love, but now there's trouble in what lies beneath.

In He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, which Colombani co-scripted with Caroline Thivel, Tautou plays another cuddly ingénue, this time a gifted painter named Angélique. Opening in a flower shop in Bordeaux, the film's mise-en-scène surrounds her with a palette of rich hues to match her vibrant personality. She's a spunky gal, a passionate artist and a terrible waitress. She's also a hopeless romantic, doting on her beloved cardiologist, Loïc (Samuel Le Bihan), a seeming rock of security with that short Euro-model hairstyle that drives the ladies to distraction. The problem is, his loving wife, Rachel (Isabelle Carré), is pregnant, so the romance with Angélique carries an element of doom. Quel dommage!

Not one to be crushed by despair, Angélique takes it upon herself to prove her love. She's just won a fancy arts scholarship and taken on a big, comfy abode for a year of house-sitting. She even receives constant ego boosts from an annoying pecker of a medical student named David (Clément Sibony). But life for Angélique is all about Loïc, and because they've exchanged single roses -- a prop cheap enough in all ways for any student film -- she knows their love is worth saving. This is romantic France, after all, even though it's sometimes hard to tell from the peculiar dearth of smokers (the filmmakers do manage to sneak in one quick, telling urinator). It's obvious to her that pretty soon he'll fly away with her to Florence, and thereafter heaven's gonna splatter them with endless delight.

Colombani and her cinematographer, Pierre Aim, strive to conceal the story's rudimentary assemblage, and their efforts with telling color saturations and unique angles keep the eyes busy even when the mind is drifting. Anyone who's seen slightly older adulteress/princesses such as Carrie Fisher in When Harry Met Sally or Helena Bonham Carter in Novocaine will have a pretty good idea of the emotional spectrum at hand, but a sturdy machine is a good machine. Colombani has stressed her appreciation of the neurotic peaks of Roman Polanski, Tim Burton and Jane Campion, and she's a dedicated study.

If only the writing were exciting. Originally the director wanted to cast herself as the impassioned lead of her debut feature -- seldom a good idea -- but, relieved of that responsibility she still seems too busy to notice that her scenarios, though pretty and quirky, aren't terribly compelling. As the plot rolls out and we meet Angélique's supportive friend Héloïse (Sophie Guillemin) and Loïc's demented patient Sonia (Nathalie Krebs), we learn that misunderstandings and deceptions are brewing. Not everything the lovers say or do is what it seems. The film delivers most of its scenes twice, once from Angélique's perspective and once from Loïc's. Yet the conflicts as presented are too languid to keep the déjà vu sparking.

After the star factor dies down, the film may find its niche as a useful mirror for obsessives. Because Angélique and Loïc behave so erratically and miss each other's drifts so completely, there's also copious war-of-the-sexes fodder on hand for those who want it. This movie may even serve as an antidote to those flying high on Amélie's dreaminess. Standing on its own, it's comme ci, comme ça, self-serious when it should be adventurous, coy when it should be revelatory. One must afford it props, though, for its proud celebration of insanity. Now that is truly creepy.

 
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