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A Shell Gamine

Beautiful Lies (2010)

Trinity Film

"Beautiful Lies" immediately reminds you of half a dozen other better movies: Its original French title, "De vrais mensonges," literally translates to "true lies" in English. The film reunites "Venus Beauty Institute" alumni Audrey Tautou and Nathalie Baye on a salon set. We have the plot twist of "Cyrano de Bergerac" mixed with the setup of "The Hairdresser's Husband." And of course, by naming Ms. Tautou's character Émilie, the specter of Amélie Poulain is firmly present throughout.

Émilie co-owns a hair salon on France's south coast and feels responsible for her mother Maddy (Ms. Baye), who has been a wreck since the collapse of her marriage. Jean (Sami Bouajila) is the salon's new electrician and hopelessly in love with Émilie. But he doesn't have the nerve to tell her so directly, so instead he pours out his heart in an anonymous letter to her. Émilie throws it away at first, but then retrieves it, changes the addressee and sends it to her mother. Émilie is as interfering as Amélie was, but the difference here is that Émilie is not just stuck but actively unhappy. She drinks too much; she regrets her career choice; and her parents' problems have overwhelmed her personal life. Also, she has a tattoo of some flowers on the back of her neck.

Director Pierre Salvadori's previous movie was "Priceless," also starring Ms. Tautou about a career gold digger who causes an upstanding hotel clerk to overturn his life in order to get her to fall in love with him. With "Beautiful Lies" — which he co-wrote with Benoît Graffin — he has fallen into the trap that has captured most recent romantic comedies: Nowadays, two people who fancy each other have very little stopping them from sleeping together right away. The romance comes afterward, as the couple figures out whether or not that is a bad idea. This of course goes against thousands of years of storytelling convention, in which the royalty and the peasant must be kept apart for as long as possible. So modern movies are ridiculously contorted in their attempts to keep the couple apart and stretch out the movie to an acceptable running time. But that means the characters act like idiots and the audience loses interest. It would have been so much more interesting if Émilie immediately realizes who wrote the letter and sends it to her mother regardless. In those circumstances, the rest of the film would have clicked into place; and the audience could have found sympathy for knowingly unsympathetic characters.

The movie looks fantastic, with the bright sunlight of the French Riviera suffusing every scene. Judith Chemla as Paulette, the salon’s hopeless receptionist, steals the movie with her terrified incompetence; and Stéphanie Lagarde as the voice of reason in Émilie's life is also excellent. But the character of Jean is a conundrum. Mr. Bouajila shows perfectly Jean's hidden intelligence, but he cannot overcome the fact that Jean behaves to suit the requirements of the plot only. His shyness around Émilie lasts only until the letter has been sent. Later on, his behavior becomes even less explicable, until by the end it's completely unforgivable. Maddy's behavior is also awful in its misguided revenge, although much more understandable. By the end, what Mr. Salvadori intends as romance is actually self-destructive.


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