A couple on the verge of divorce (they announce it to friends at dinner), Marie (Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Nicolas (Bruno Todeschini) have returned to Paris after some years of living in Lisbon to attend an old friend's wedding. Although they bicker a lot, at the film's end there's a chance they aren't going to get divorced after all. The shift in locale has caused a change in feelings. Or is it just that the movie has no development? The Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa had French contacts several years ago when he worked with Béatrice Dalle and Caroline Champetier, his cinematographer again here (who in turn has worked with some of today's most illustrious French directors) on M/Other, an "experimental" remake of Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour, a film selected to be shown in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes 2002. And Un Couple parfait owes something to improvisational directors like Cassavetes.
But if Cassavetes is the model, there is a difference, and an important one. Cassavetes worked with New York actors and settings that he knew well; Suwa, who speaks no French, just set things up and let things and the actors play out on their own -- in what he says was the shortest shoot he's ever done. Well, the crew got their jobs out of the way quickly, but it's a slow business to watch the results. There are moments of truth here generated by the leads, but overall, not enough to relieve the longueurs of this oppressive, stifling, and tedious study of a marriage. For the most part it doesn't look very good either. Astonishingly, considering her having worked with Garrel, Beauvois, Fontaine, Jacquot, Téchiné, and Desplechin on some very good films, Champetier's images are so murky in this unfortunate effort you can't even see Tedeschini most of the time.
Improvisation is a worthwhile, perhaps sometimes essential, way for actors to hone their skills, and can be a useful way to add emotional authenticity and realism to screen performances. There's no doubt that a whole film that's improvised is a challenge for the principals here that they were brave to have taken on, and Bruno-Tedeschi in particular achieves some truthful moments. But the technique is risky. Improvisational film-making quite often seems more fake than movies that are carefully choreographed. Under pressure and with no specific plan actors leave out necessary expository details. When they tell Esther (Nathalie Boutefeu) and Vincent (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) they're getting divorced, Marie and Nicolas forget to mention why and we never learn. They go on about other people's children so there's a hint that they're dissatisfied not to have produced any. Marie accuses Nicolas of being a fake. Well, acting is faking. The trick is to make it real. When actors are improvising, using fragments of their own experience and personalities with no intervention from a written text, the result may appear raw and authentic but it may as easily seem vague and unfocused. The content can't be completely autobiographical on the part of the actors, but without a text something is therefore missing. The actors in A Perfect Couple don't work up enough steam or have the chops and chutzpah to make this succeed as Cassavetes' actors such as Peter Falk, Gina Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, and Cassavetes himself could do because of their rapport with the director and their history together and because of interest-generating conflicts they and Cassavetes introduced into the film plots.
Nicolas has a flirty drink with another wedding guest, Natacha (Joanna Preiss), and Marie runs into a school friend named Patrick (Alex Descas) and his son (Emett Descas) at a museum. Both scenes hint at the possibility that the couple may want to explore other possibilities, but being improvised without supervision, they fail to interact effectively with the whole. All we know is that at the end there is still some warmth in the marriage. But it's hard to care, since we're learned so little about the couple. Not much can be said for the performances of Bruno-Tedeschi and Tedeschini, who seem to have little in common other than their rhyming names.
The dullness (or shall we say neutrality) of the proceedings is increased by long static shots, sometimes with no actors in view, and occasional inexplicable blackouts suggesting the digital camera ran out of juice. If these effects create a sense of something new or convince you you're not watching unsupervised actors wildly flailing about for ideas and are actually eavesdropping on "reality," then rush to see Un Couple parfait. Otherwise you may want to take my advice and stay away from this clinker and hope it doesn't get to run the festival rounds; it isn't going to be at a theater near you and that's a good thing.
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