"So there's this this French defense attorney, played by Fabrice Luchini, who goes to Monaco to argue on behalf of a woman who killed her lover, a man with connections to the Russian mafia. He's assigned a bodyguard by the woman's family - the bodyguard is played by Roschdy Zem - and the lawyer is stunned by how easily his bodyguard falls in and out of quick, meaningless sexual relationships, and asks for advice. It just so happens that the bubbly weather girl he tries out his new tricks on (Louise Bourgoin, plucked from obscurity not unlike that of her character) had a past sexual relationship with the bodyguard, and he instantly distrusts her; he suspects that she might be trying to deliberately distract the lawyer from his case, because Lord knows that's what happens, especially once he falls in love and discovers that she's Monaco's village bicycle."
"It's a sex farce, then."
"No. I mean, no and yes. The situations are farcical, but we never really laugh at them, and given how contrived most of the movie is, there's not any sense that we're supposed to take anything except on face value. If it's melodrama, it's melodrama we're not meant to view ironically."
"Hm. Well, is it a drama about sexual psychology?"
"God, know. It's as shiny and easily-popped as a soap bubble."
"Does it have any gravitas, then, or not?"
"I don't know. If it were American, it would be a twee little indie that might make a small hit at Sundance, but mostly everyone else would ignore it. But it's French, and there's a certain ineffable Frenchness to it that makes it seem like it's all very serious even when it's plainly all very silly."
"Okay, then does it say anything about the human condition at all?"
"I'm... not sure. It's awfully nice to look at, though, and it flies right on past."
This is more or less the conversation that's been playing in my brain on a loop since I saw The Girl from Monaco a 2008 import directed by Anne Fontaine. Here's what I know: I'm glad I saw it. I just can't quite set my finger down on why that is the case. It's certainly not at all the movie that the ad campaign promised, a fluffy sex comedy about an old man and a girl a third his age getting it on under the watchful eye of an unspeaking bodyguard. It is, when all is said and done, a French movie, which means that however fluffy it might be, it also has a healthy dose of "what a fool the human animal can be in matters of love and lust." Since it is French, love and lust are not easily distinguished, nor is there much value in the attempt to do so.
On one level, the film's pleasures are wholly ephemeral: the lovely Monaco scenery, Bourgoin in skimpy, revealing costumes. Something of a cinematic beach read, you might say. But after a time, the movie twists into darker waters, and I hesitate to use the word "twist" at all, because it's all eminently predictable what's going to happen. Which is what keeps the movie from being just a standard-issue sex thriller; because we know what thrilling things are coming before they come, what we're thinking about is not the events depicted in the film but the light they cast on the characters.
And it is upon the characters that I ultimately descend, three perfectly-cast actors breathing life into a singularly odd love triangle that is thus granted a certain emotional impact it might not inherently possess. Each of the three people in The Girl from Monaco represents an essentially different way of looking at romance; not that they combine to form every possibility, of course, but they are three extremes, basically. And while Fontaine might be generally content to set them on their courses and let them collide with each other and shoot off in all directions like pinballs, Luchini, Zem, and Bourgoin - the first two more than the last - give a certain weight and solidity to the people they play, making it seem like they are in fact actual players in a game that's a bit larger than they can see (Zem), want to see (Luchini) or have the insight to think about in the first place (Bourgoin). It is a story about being carried up in the heat of the moment and not realising until too late what that means; and in this respect it is fitting, I suppose, that the film is so given over to the sensual pleasures of making a movie in Monaco, with its winding mountain roads and azure water.
At the same time, Fontaine doesn't just cut the movie adrift; even if she is only casually guiding it to where it ends up, there's still the sense of a strong overriding principal behind the rhythmic editing that drives the movie forward, almost too quickly at times. Fontaine (who has made numerous films, some well-regarded, though I am only now seeing her work for the first time) has an uncanny knack for putting together all of the beats of the story so that they're clearly all part of a whole; she then does not quite entirely manage to execute that complete whole in the most compelling or coherent way. The Girl from Monaco hangs together in a most perilously loose manner, shall we say.
Maybe that's the point. This is a film about the individual moment: living in it, seizing it, regretting the ramifications of doing so. So perhaps it makes sense that it feels more like a collection of moments than a perfectly smooth narrative. Or perhaps I'm doing the movie's work for it. I can't tell. All I know is that for 95 minutes I was captivated, and at the end I was satisfied that there hadn't been a better place to cut off the action, nor would a still better place likely have appeared anywhere in the offing. Sometimes, I think it is enough to let a movie plant its seed and let you know that parts of it haven't quite revealed themselves to you; and while The Girl from Monaco does not have the texture of a masterpiece, it's not at all as disposable as it seems at first glance.