Stage Fright

Frenchman worries that My Wife Is an Actress

Aug 7, 2002 at 4:00 am
If nothing else, give French actor Yvan Attal credit for his faith in domestic bliss. At a time when matrimony has a shorter lifespan than mayonnaise, Attal has sought to mingle the joys and traumas of his own marriage (to actress Charlotte Gainsbourg) with his piquant views on the ambiguities of movie acting in a romantic comedy that is first and foremost a tribute to his beloved.

Despite its blunt title, My Wife Is an Actress, and the presence of Attal and Gainsbourg in the leading roles, the actor turned writer/director claims this not-so-funny valentine is not particularly autobiographical and shouldn't be viewed as some sort of documentary. Fine, but Attal is not above blurring the distinctions himself: The main characters here are named Yvan and Charlotte, and the director/husband says he encouraged his costar to "be herself" every moment before the camera.

In any event, the fictional Yvan turns out to be a rumpled Paris sportswriter who's gained minor notoriety covering bicycle racing and soccer -- although he never seems to go to work. The supposedly make-believe Charlotte is a loyal, unpretentious sort, but she's also a movie actress who's sufficiently famous that she can book a table at a hot restaurant when her spouse cannot. She's recognizable enough on the street that gawking fans don't hesitate to hand Yvan their cameras and demand that he take snapshots of them with their idol. Meanwhile, acquaintances blithely suggest to Yvan that his wife's job actually requires casual promiscuity.

We are, of course, being set up for the film's comic crisis. When the little irritations and second-class slights that go with being married to a celebrity start to escalate, Yvan comes apart faster than Liz Taylor's wedding vows. Long an outspoken admirer of Woody Allen, Attal begins as a hangdog nonhero and disintegrates into a Woodyesque bundle of fears and neuroses, all of them intensified by the wife's latest gig -- a studio shoot in London in which she's paired with John (Terence Stamp), a suave older leading man with a reputation as a seducer. How long will it take before our man goes over the edge?

Attal has appeared in two dozen films (most of them not well known in the United States). Gainsbourg is one of Europe's most popular actresses (Jane Eyre, La Bûche), and Stamp has been around practically since talkies came in. So the backstage intrigues and theatrical vanities they pump into Actress likely come straight from their own experience. Predictably, the likable but self-absorbed John sees acting as a mere adjunct to his true calling -- painting -- but he doesn't hesitate to spout poetry at starry-eyed scriptgirls. Charlotte's overwrought English director (Keith Allen) insists that she do a nude scene, then complies when she demands that the entire cast and crew also take off their clothes -- just in time for her husband to pop in for a visit. And to get a clearer view of what's life and what's art, poor Yvan even signs up for a student acting class -- with unexpected results.

Attal is not the first filmmaker to examine the perils of backstage romance, movie-set excess and the old truth-or-fiction question about acting emotion. François Truffaut's Day for Night, whose very title derives from a cinematic illusion, did it all better back in 1973, and even Woody Allen's most recent failure, Hollywood Ending, wrangles with some of the same issues in a bleak comedy about a blinded movie director pretending to see. What sets Actress apart -- if anything does -- is the fact that an offscreen husband conceived and executed the whole project as an homage to his wife. In the end, though, there is more anxiety than loving humor in the proceedings and a noticeable lack of charm. An annoying subplot involving Yvan's braying sister (Noémie Lvovsky) and an argument about her child's circumcision adds exactly nothing to the mix, and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau's elegant score seems inappropriate to the conjugal doubts and self-conscious stresses that smother our laughter through most of these 93 minutes. Yvan Attal may be happily entangled in his fair Charlotte's web, but he doesn't manage to snare us.