Thursday, April 19, 2007

Valet service

Onto lighter subjects. After a dismal week weatherwise here in the Northeast, spring finally seems to be asserting itself, and a nice complement to fun in the afternoon sun would be The Valet, the latest farce from France's Francis Veber, which Sony Pictures Classics opens tomorrow. I put down Robert Zemeckis' Used Cars as the funniest movie I had ever seen in my responses to the personal movie quiz I posted earlier this week, but if I had thought about I might have picked Veber's The Dinner Game (1998), which come to think of it may be the funniest movie I have ever seen in a theater, to judge by the constant laughter that greeted the film when I saw it.

The Valet is a milder film, still funny, but rarely explosively so. It's comforting to know that somewhere in a world that seems colder and crueler by the week someone is still writing doctor jokes, and still wringing chuckles from them. Veber, who turns 70 in July, has been practicing his craft since the 1960s, and craft it is; few directors know how to frame a widescreen image as perfectly as Veber (the film was shot by Robert Fraisse), with every element placed legibly across the long rectangular expanse of screen.

Think how many movies use their canvas poorly, or resort to closeups or unimaginative setups that waste the possibilities of space. This is important, for if there is a bedroom door on one side of Veber's screen, you can bet that before long there will be two or three characters sprinting toward it at some point during a scene, usually from the exact other side of the tableau, which is of course funnier. Watching a Veber film is like watching a film from the 60s, when there was no fear of the wide image--the need for films to "read" on the square TV, before the advent of letterboxing on home video, discouraged directors from making more use of this essential, and elemental, tool. And that is a cinephile's highest compliment.

I can't say that with this picture the content lives up to its form, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with The Valet. It's on the verge of being hysterical, but Veber, the author of La Cage Aux Folles and other scripts later Americanized for remakes, is too genteel, too polished, to push it over. Pierre (the faultless Daniel Auteuil, who, given his appearance in almost every French film sold abroad, is as much an export to the US as bottles of fine wine) is a spoiled business magnate who lives in fear of his wife, Christine (a pan-European Kristin Scott Thomas), who holds the pursestrings to his empire. Nevertheless he dallies with a top model, Elena (Alice Taglioni, pictured). When he and Elena are caught in a tabloid photograph, he turns, as trapped men must in a Veber film, to a guileless, and somewhat clueless, Pignon; in this case, valet parker Francois Pignon (Gad Elmaleh). The nebbishy Pignon is also in the picture, and to reduce Christine's suspicions Pierre's minions convince him to pretend to be Elena's boyfriend, going so far as to install her in his dilapidated flat. But this sudden notoriety as the "lover" of the nation's hottest model disrupts his fumbling courtship of Emilie, the girl next door (the always winsome Virginie Ledoyen, one of the nicest reasons to go to French films), and causes Elena, who is far less haughty than her standing in the world of haute couture implies, to rethink her lot in life (Pierre is bribing them to play along). Designer Karl Lagerfeld, a real-life character Klaus Kinski died too soon to portray, makes a suitably flamboyant cameo on the runway.

The Valet is a little reminiscent of Billy Wilder's The Apartment--a great accomplishment in widescreen filmmaking--but it is all plot, with reversals the actors play fast on their feet, and no subtext. Like many of his films, it's like a solid one-act theatrical farce. But his handling of the lightweight material is purely cinematic, and perfectly enjoyable for what it sets out to do, and accomplishes, in all of 82 minutes. Unless Veber is in charge of it, count on the proposed Hollywood remake to be much longer, and graceless.

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