One of the highlights of the closing weekend of this year’s City of Lights, City of Angels film festival, Love Is in the Air keeps its feet planted firmly on the ground — or at least within the relative calm of a flight simulator. Writer-director Rémi Bezançon’s debut feature offers the story of 30-something Yann (Vincent Elbaz), whose lifelong fear of flying has cost him more than one romantic relationship, including one with the beautiful Charlotte (Elsa Kikoine), who may just have been the girl of his dreams. (Ten years ago, she got on a plane for a vacation in Australia; he didn’t.) Now, Yann has become (get this) an aviation-security expert, poised to settle down with Alice (Marion Cotillard) — the first woman in a long time who hasn’t made him pine for his ex — when, lo and behold, guess who walks back into Yann’s life. The turbulence that follows won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy before, but Love Is in the Air stays buoyant thanks to its enormously appealing performers (particularly Elbaz, who’s like a cross between Jerry Seinfeld and John Turturro), Bezançon’s peppy wide-screen visuals (which have the crisp, clean lines and vivid colors of comic-book panels) and an assortment of delightfully off-kilter supporting characters. (My personal favorites were the pilot who’s great in a real crisis but terrible in a simulated one, and the former sound engineer who literally can’t string two words together.)
Meanwhile, for those seeking actual feats of aerial derring-do, Gérard Pirès’ Sky Fighters may fit the bill. It is, as advertised, the French equivalent of Top Gun, though with its indecipherable plot about illicit international arms dealing, and the modest novelty of having two of its hot-dogging flyboys turn out to be strapping flygirls, it may more closely resemble last summer’s misbegotten Stealth. The big sell here is that all of the film’s airborne sequences were supposedly accomplished without the aid of CGI, with the use of four 35mm cameras mounted onto one of the French air force’s Mirage 2000 combat fighters. Fair enough, though it’s a measure of just how far CGI has come that I could hardly tell the difference.
Sky Fighters isn’t very good, even on its own terms, but what it shares with Love Is in the Air (beyond their common interest in the art of flight) is that they’re both exactly the sort of commercial, highly accessible French movies more likely to be remade in America than released here — where art-house patrons would likely turn up their noses at them for being too lowbrow. And yet, as one who’s guilty of championing the occasional highbrow affair (French or otherwise), I confess to finding even Sky Fighters preferable to the petrified pretension of Patrice Chéreau’s Gabrielle, an adaptation on Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Return,” in which a bourgeois couple’s long, loveless marriage finally unravels after the wife (Isabelle Huppert) confesses to having had an affair. There are some fine performances here, chief among them the always fascinating Huppert, whose lonely passion is so deeply felt that she comes to resemble a wilting flower craving sunlight. But it’s not enough to supplant the arch airlessness of the piece, or Chéreau’s greater interest in his whirling-dervish camera than in the human lives under its scrutiny.
As long as I’m on track to cement my Philistine status, I might as well say a few words in favor of Palais Royal!, a slapstick farce about the chaos that ensues when, thanks to a technicality, a pot-smoking fop (Lambert Wilson) ascends to the throne of a fictitious country that looks an awful lot like England, but where everybody speaks French. The movie, which marks the directorial debut of actress Valérie Lemercier (seen earlier in this year’s CoLCoA program as one of the stars of Orchestra Seats), was reportedly greeted with stunned silence by the audience at a recent New York press screening, their shock no doubt stemming from the proliferation of jokes involving pies to the face, crowns falling into bowls of pea soup and Luciano Pavarotti bungee-jumping for charity. (Quel horreur!) No matter: Palais Royal! is broad and one-note, but often quite funny, and never less than a fitting celebration of the fabulous Ms. Lemercier, who plays a surprisingly shrewd Princess to Catherine Deneuve’s Queen and who ranks among the most gracefully graceless physical comedians on movie screens today.
Finally, on the same weekend that sees the arrival of the American Cinematheque’s annual salute to film noir, CoLCoA offers its own triple feature of contemporary stabs at that uniquely Franco-American genre: Stéphan Guérin-Tillié’s Edy, with the ace character-actor François Berléand (Mon Idole, The Transporter) as an aging hit man trying to call it quits; Anne Fontaine’s In His Hands, in which a pert insurance adjuster (Isabelle Carré) finds herself falling for a client (Benoît Poelvoorde) who may be a serial killer — well acted, but something of a watched pot that never boils; and, the best of the trio, The Black Box, directed by actor Richard Berry and starring the brilliant José Garcia (The Ax) as the victim of a violent road accident who awakens from a coma and begins reassembling the jigsaw fragments of memory that may hold the answer to a long-suppressed childhood mystery. The ultimate reveal here isn’t half as gripping as the various twists and turns along the way, but, like all of the best noirs, The Black Box is less a case of whodunnit than it is a cynical portrait of an entire society steaming with thinly veiled corruption.
CITY OF LIGHTS, CITY OF ANGELS | At the Directors Guild of America | Through April 9 | www.colcoa.com