Ma Femme Est Une Actrice [My Wife Is an Actress] (2001)

Somewhere back in the heyday of my reviewing, I undoubtedly noted that Sony Pictures Classics, as a distribution and production company, is one I trust almost implicitly. In the days of cheap purchases of bargained DVD at Big Lots, I generally picked up almost anything with the name on it with enough trust in at least that minor investment, and the prospective time required alongside it. Other than poking at reviews of this film, that was all I had to go on–the largely French output of Gainsbourg and Attal, especially at that point, had no clues to offer me in deciding whether to give this one a whirl.

Yvan (Attal, not exactly playing himself) is a sports announcer living in Paris and married to famous French actress Charlotte (Gainsbourg, also not exactly playing herself), contending with the momentary frustrations this engenders–requests for autographs, or the sudden openings in restaurant reservations her fame earns–when she’s scheduled to start a shoot in London with respected actor John (Terence Stamp). While contending with the concerns of his sister Nathalie (Noémie Lvovsky) and her husband Vincent (Laurent Bateau), who are struggling with her desire to raise their future child in the traditions of her Jewish faith, Yvan is increasingly obsessive and concerned with his wife’s professional activities (at least insofar as they involve other men), after some needling from Georges (Lionel Abelanski), a man who once had a crush on his sister.

While it would be enough that Attal and Gainsbourg have actually been together for 20-odd years now (and about ten at the time of filming), they’ve admitted that there’s some real-life inspiration in this film (certainly a more palatable idea than the things Charlotte is most often associated with as seemingly inspired by reality). Of course, the exact nature of Yvan’s jealousy can’t make sense in the real world–Yvan himself was already an actor, too, when he met Charlotte. None of which erases the probability of these kinds of emotions actually occurring, as their admission certainly indicates. It’s interesting to watch as a hypothetically innocent inquiry from Georges–and, especially, the insistence of it–manages to twist Yvan into a knot: while he was irritated by things here and there, it seemed largely to indicate nothing seriously debilitating to their relationship. It’s also pretty great as it’s shot around the label Nathalie gives Georges of stupidity, which the scene and Yvan run away with spectacularly.

Yvan is something like Griffin Dunne, I felt immediately: likeable, sort of scruffy, and thoroughly sarcastic, with a razor sharp deadpan that doesn’t prevent an occasional outburst. He admirably embraces the less-likable aspects of his character–his obsessive jealousy is understandable in context, and it helps to see him as he is before Georges nudges him over the edge, even if it’s clear that it was always in there. Charlotte ably manages the thankless role of being the most “herself” in a sense, as she is playing a character with her name living with a man she actually lives with, and working at a job she actually works at. Her reactions to Yvan’s jealous twinges and questioning are real and right, and seems real and sympathetic even as she moves through a life that is more (ironically!) divorced from reality than everyone around her–even on film, she’s to act in front of “strangers” as her public self, and juggle the variety of environments that come with it.

A film like this is not my standard fare–at least, not since I was randomly watching things on television in my youth. The humour worked surprisingly well for me, considering my notorious selectivity when it comes to humour. I think a lot of it is the chemistry of the stars, the crispness of the script, and the decision to back the entire thing primarily with Brad Mehldau’s jazz score–with the notable exception of choosing to insert the Clash’s “London Calling” where London does indeed call in-film (at the least, that’s where it appeared the second time, to my amusement). This is not some sort of art-house classic or brilliant revelation, nor did I expect it to be–nor do I think anyone else should. What it is, however, is an excellent success at its own intentions: a funny, enjoyable movie that tells a story it wants to tell.

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