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A Girl Cut in Two -- a Film Review

Wednesday, July 08, 2009 at 09:40 AM EDT

Should this film be indicative of reality, there would appear to be a shortage of virile youngsters of both sexes in Lyon. On the one hand, there are several middle-aged men with their tongues hanging out when it comes to the vapid Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier), as if she was Botticelli’s Venus come to life. Meanwhile, there seems to be no young man, brimming with wit, vim and vigour, on hand for long enough to dispatch all of these greasy-minded old codgers and wealthy screwballs for six.

While much respected filmmaker Claude Chabrol clearly has his tongue firmly in cheek with this story of intense and convoluted love affairs, there is still something rather tiresome and painfully predictable about yet another French movie that portrays high culture, upper class living, and casual chauvinism as if it the whole country spent their days indulging in all three at once. Accordingly, for this étranger at least, the film quickly becomes an uneasy hybrid between fairly entertaining parody and yet another shovel load or two of deluded French cinema.

Speaking of crossbreeds, both Nicole Kidman in To Die For and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary appear to be channelled in this performance by Sagnier. However, in attempting to be naïve and manipulated, on the one hand, and devious and manipulative, on the other, she ends up getting bogged down in a morass between the two poles in her character. At the same time, and at the risk of turning me into a hypocrite on the subject of casual chauvinism, she really does have a lovely smile that lights up the screen.

In fairness to Sagnier, she is being asked to maintain two quite questionable relationships. One of these is with bestselling author Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand). However, he is a sufficiently selfish and depraved brute that a flasher outside of a primary school seems sexually well adjusted in comparison. Her other lover (Benoît Magimel) then comes across as being such a pompous yet gormless fool that babies presumably steal candy from him.

Now, of course it panders to the male ego to see even a middle-aged bore getting to bed a besotted young filly whilst maintaining a meaningful and loving relationship with his chaste yet open-minded wife (Valeria Cavalli). However, as this is such an obvious nonsense in reality, one might generously assume that a good chunk of the joke may have gone A.W.O.L. in cultural translation.

That said, Chabrol spends precious little time providing any background to these characters. Instead, they are introduced in two-dimensional terms, with all of them apparently falling madly in love at first sight and with no real emotional depth ever deemed necessary. As a result, to give two figs about what happens to any of them is to give two figs too many. All the same, Magimel is pretty entertaining in the role of the foppish yet volatile playboy and the best moments in the film belong to him.

However, this is not enough to offset a film that feels a little old-fashioned in its comedy and which struggles to go beyond being well-crafted but ultimately modest entertainment. The melodramatic and blindingly obvious visual metaphor at the end feels as disappointing as it seems unnecessary. A good film in parts, but never a great one on the whole.