French farce is funny, but still smacks of sitcom
September 10, 2005
Given the information that “Apres Vous” is a farce about a French waiter who works in a fine Parisian restaurant, the odds-on assumption is that the humor revolves around the snootiness of the server.
That, however, is not the stereotype that director Pierre Salvadori is dishing up here. In fact, the waiter, Antoine (Daniel Auteuil), is probably the biggest-hearted person in all of Paris. After a busy night of work serving boeuf and pouring Burgundy and in a rush to meet his hard-to-please girlfriend, Christine (Marilyne Canto), Antoine takes a shortcut through a closed park. There he comes across Louis (Jose Garcia), who is well into the process of hanging himself.
“Apres Vous” isn’t about the cliche of the condescending French waitperson. But it is about the cliche of the man, his life saved by another, becoming attached to his rescuer. Antoine is, indeed, as generous a soul as he first seems. After cutting Louis free from the tree branch, Antoine adds another piece to his already hectic life: making sure that Louis gets back on his feet. Figuratively, this time. Antoine brings Louis home, giving him a bed and emotional comfort.
But this is not enough ” not for Louis, whose fragility remains intense, nor for Antoine, who can’t fully commit to Christine, but whose devotion to Louis knows no end. The two form a tight codependence: Louis cannot be apart from Antoine for even a moment, and Antoine goes beyond offering mere solace to Louis. He sets about putting Louis’ life in order.
Item No. 1 on the list for Louis’ recovery is a job. Despite Louis’ palpable nervousness and lack of experience, Antoine arranges a job for him as the sommelier at Chez Jean, where he works. Here is where the comedy finally begins to kick in, after an uncertain start. Louis’ hapless audition for the demanding restaurant owner is classic French comedy, a mix of slapstick and high humor.
The principle cause of Louis’ malaise, of course, isn’t that he had never recommended expensive wines for picky diners. What chased him to suicide was, predictably, a girl: Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain), a dreamy, indecisive worker in a florist’s shop. Blanche had cut Louis loose from their romance as cleanly as Antoine had cut him down from the tree. And Antoine, figuring that Louis will never be safe until reunited with Blanche, goes to comic lengths to reignite that flame.
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Simply tracking down Blanche, finding out if she is otherwise romantically attached ” she is ” and extricating her from that involvement means a lot of time spent at the florist’s shop. It also means plenty of episodes where Antoine runs out of the restaurant, leaving diners and the still-shaky Louis to fend for themselves and providing more opportunity for slapstick. In the process, whatever charms of Blanche’s that drove Louis to the tree branch have worked their magic on Antoine. It is a neat twist on the romantic triangle. With Antoine torn between his devotion to Louis and his infatuation with Blanche, and Blanche and Louis both unaware of what Antoine is up to, there are the usual scenes of mistaken identity, false motives and close calls.
The biggest problem with “Apres Vous” is that it never cuts loose in the manner of a full-blown farce. When it does ” when Antoine and Louis try to intercept a suicide note to Louis’ grandparents ” it is sufficiently funny while maintaining its warm heart. Too often, however, it retreats into the sensibility of an overlong sitcom: a well-acted, well-made sitcom, with a very good ending, but a sitcom nonetheless.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org