Unappetizing, by David Bax
Ever since her breakout performance as the precious, winsome title character in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie more than a decade ago, Audrey Tatou has held an exhaustingly dear place in many male movie geek’s stunted romantic longings. The Amelie character and others like her – beautiful without being intimidating; intelligent but still submissive – are perfect daydream material for the spineless beta men who spend their time disappearing into artifice. Her newest film, Delicacy, directed by David & Stéphane Foenkinos, seems to play directly to those torch-bearers, pairing Tatou’s character with a schlubby loser who everyone thinks is below her but actually understands her more than anyone else. Yet, instead of being a rallying cry for all of us doughy nerds, it’s actually an insult; the film patronizes the character in that it defines him almost wholly by his social standing.
Tatou plays Nathalie, whom we first meet as a humble, young woman selling playbooks in a theater lobby. Over the course of the film’s extended prologue, we meet her boyfriend (and then her fiancée and then her husband), François. By the time we’re fifteen minutes in, the two are married, Nathalie has a good corporate job with career prospects and the couple are considering having children. Then, one lazy weekend morning, the husband goes out for a job, gets struck by a car and is killed. After some scenes of the initial grieving, we next see Nathalie three years later. She has moved up in the company but she is still emotionally unable to progress. Her sleazy boss is eager to take François’ place but she is uninterested in him or anyone else. Yet, in a moment of desperation or acting-out or whatever the screenwriters want to chalk the plot contrivance up to, she grabs and passionately kisses one of her office subordinates, a somewhat oafish Swede named Markus. To her, it was a one-time lapse in rationality. To Markus, though, it was life-changing. He commits himself to pursuing Nathalie. They become good friends and then perhaps they become more.
To the Foenkinos’ credit, the early section with the very handsome François is well-executed. The choice to let those scenes live long enough for us to become attached to him and their relationship is a smart one and they pull it off without being exasperatingly portentous about the young man’s fate. The immediate aftermath of his death, however, betrays the film’s flimsiness. Nathalie spends some time sitting and staring. She does some drastic cleaning and rearranging of his things. At no point does she really seem to be processing her loss in any recognizably human way, though. It’s a sort of grief kabuki, as if she knows there’s an audience watching her.
Markus is similarly under-drawn. The scenes following Nathalie’s initial kiss are gratingly broad. He walks around in a childish daze, as if this perfectly normal-looking adult man (with admittedly bad teeth) has never contemplated the notion that someone might be interested in him. The actor, François Damiens, does display a genuine warmth that softens the blow of his character’s blunt coloring. Still, there’s not much to him apart from his being Swedish and unpopular.
Nathalie’s boss, Charles, is equally problematic. I’m not sure what the French laws and customs are when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace but, even if they are as lax as they would need to be for this character to work, the pathetic single-mindedness of the man is not congruous with such a successful businessman. H is willing to make enormous decisions that affect his company based on petty jealousies. Even by this film’s standards, he is a distractingly flat character.
It’s Nathalie, though, upon whose back the film travels and it never quite works because she’s never quite believable. How can this woman who has advanced so far at work be seemingly uninterested and cavalier when it comes to her job? How can a woman so clearly thoughtful and caring have a group of friends so shallow as to tell her in the company of Markus that she could do better than him? And why would an apparently sane woman simply grab and kiss a man who works for her? No one does that. She is whatever the film needs her to be scene to scene and moment to moment.
Toward the film’s end, Nathalie and Markus go to visit her grandmother in the countryside. The old woman talking about her late husband and Markus imagining Nathalie’s childhood days spent in the garden allow for some nice, if unoriginal, musings on what it means to really love a person. It’s a mawkish and manipulative sequence but for those few minutes, at least, Delicacy has a point of view. The rest is just a condescending trifle of sad sack wish fulfillment.