More than most, abroad as well as at home the French have kept alive legends of long-ago glories. And also, among more recent ones, those of innovative progressiveness in the arts of cinema and love. But now, with commercial interests in the driver's seat, France largely turns out gangster stuff and fluff comedies like any other. Fully indicative of the fall is Côte d’Azur (crustacés et coquillages).
This piffle tips its hand at once, with Pink Panther-esque sea-creature credits, Philippe Miller’s oh-so-French carousel score, and winking double entendre table talk of raw oysters and pepper seasoning. The wordplay continues until the end, where gay plumber Didier (Jean-Marc Barr) observes that “the English and the Portuguese always need a pipe filled,” as the film works out its various open or closeted permutations and combinations of partners and preferences. An out-of-the-blue song-and-dance interlude interrupts, Bollywood-style, and a second, ensemble affair wraps up as fourth-time co-writers/-directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau reach for their “utopian feel modern fable.”
Pleased with its sitcom ways, the fable centers around the Bianchier family on summer holiday at the gardened Riviera house inherited from Great-Aunt Josette, while every twenty minutes or so some new person appears who must be explained and integrated. Marc (Gilbert Melki) and Béatrix (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) are a handsome fortyish couple, he taken up puttering around with a garageful of tools, she impressed with her own Dutch, therefore tolerant, views.
Daughter Laura (Sabrina Seyvecou) gets out of the way early, motorcycling to Portugal for late-teen frolic and sex, leaving high-school-senior brother Charly (Romain Torres) to the mercy of the parents’ misunderstandings. Long-haired and a tad androgynous, Charly is made out as teetering on gay-ness, insists he is not to his unlistening old folks, and awaits the visit of his friend Martin (Édouard Collin), who is gay, ready to tease the less physically mature Charly, and experimentally interested in cruising for lovers along the seafront fort.
Sharing memories like Marc’s romantic dreams of the castle across the water, the parents are in love, but after twenty-five years he is less physically attentive and, it turns out, has repressed his local secret that unexpectedly resurfaces, while she has a comic and comfortable side affair going on. Martin first appears cell-phoning on the far side of a train, and so, too, does Mathieu (Jacques Bonnaffé), who arrives as a surprise and then cell-phones his way closer and closer to Béatrix, finally into the marital bedroom.
Goofy and goofy-looking Mathieu is tired of his substitute status and wants her all to himself. Martin pairs up with homosexual hustler Sylvain (Julien Weber), Laura returns with a new beau (Sébastien Cormier), but it would not be fair to reveal who wants “to relive a first love” with Marc.
Ending to song in harmonious coupling off is not in itself bad, as Elizabethan romantic comedies demonstrate. But the abrupt cuts and reversals, the repetition of jokes like what goes on in steamed showers, and the limp dialogue that the filmmakers describe as “snappy,” all conspire against anyone’s caring about these people, their fates, or their movie. Marlene Dietrich asserted that, whereas Americans are obsessed with sex, for Europeans it is no more than a fact of life; maybe, but Franco-frankness does not necessarily translate into better art.
(Released by Strand Releasing; not rated by MPAA. Opens in Los Angeles and New York City on September 9, 2005.)