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Not on the Lips
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The most joyous musical in years-too bad you may never see it."
5 stars

There are so many good foreign films out there that have received little to no distribution of any kind in America that it seems kind of silly and pointless to weep and wail over one individual title. Yet it still shocks me that Alain Resnais’s 2003 French-language musical “Not On the Lips” found itself enduring the same fate of so many other worthy films. This is a bright and cheerful entertainment from one of France’s most respected filmmakers that is relentlessly funny and sexy and contains any number of inspired musical numbers, having a cast made up almost entirely on non-singers. It even features Audrey Tautou, perhaps the best-known of the current crop of French actresses thanks to “Amelie” and “A Very Long Engagement” in a key supporting role. Despite all of these assets, it somehow failed to find theatrical distribution and has only played in a few festivals (such as the European Union Film Festival at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center, where it will screen this Saturday and Wednesday) to date; any future commercial playdates seem unlikely because Wellspring will be releasing it on DVD next week. If a film as seemingly commercial (in the best sense of the word) as this cannot receive a worthy theatrical distribution these days, it is a potential signal for dark days ahead for fans of world cinema.

“Not On the Lips” is a romantic farce based on a 1925 operetta by Andre Barde, one of those goofs that are filled with slamming doors, mistake identities, double-entendres and an inevitable happy ending in which everyone winds up in love with the person that they deserve. The central character is Gilberte Valandray (Sabin Azema), the wife of wealthy businessman Georges (Pierre Arditi). Although she has plenty of would-be suitors, including struggling young artist Charley (Jalil Lespert), she is still deeply in love with her husband. Georges, it should be known, has an odd scientific theory that the only way a married couple can remain happy is if the man in question is the first and only person that the woman has ever kissed on the lips. What he doesn’t know, however, is that while in America several years earlier, Gilberte met, married and later divorced an American businessman, an endeavor which presumably involved kissing of the lips, not to mention other parts as well.

One day, Georges comes home and announces that they will be having a dinner party that night in order to finalize a business deal that will earn him millions; Gilberte is thrilled until she learns that the guest in question is one Eric Thomson (Lambert Wilson), an American businessman with whom she is very familiar. When Thomson arrives, Gilberte enlists her ditsy sister Arlette (Isabelle Nanty) to beg him not to reveal that they were once married; this becomes complicated because a.) Thomson really dislikes Arlette and b.) even if he didn’t, the French-born Thomson has been in America for so long that he has forgotten his native tongue and has no idea what she is saying. The next plan involves siccing first the coquettish Huguette (Tautou) and later an army of maids on Thomson. The former plan fails because while Huguette has made no secret of her desire to land a rich husband, she finds herself growing more and more attracted to Charley. The latter fails because Thomson cannot stand being kissed on the lips, not the kind of fear one wants to have when surrounded by comely French maids.

Because the premise of “Not On the Lips” is so silly and feather-brained, there has been much speculation as to why Resnais, best known for the ultra-arty likes of “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” and “Last Year at Marienbad”, would have chosen it as the subject of a film. Some have suggested that it is merely an experiment in cinematic form, along the lines of what Francis Ford Coppola did with “One From the Heart” and Woody Allen did with “Everyone Says I Love You”. Indeed, the film shares similarities with both of those works; it contains the deliberately artificial settings of the former and uses of actors who can sort of sing, instead of the reverse, on the theory that they could act the central emotions of the songs better than more polished singers. Others have tried to read deep profundities hiding just beneath its cotton-candy surfaces; a piece in “Film Comment” attempted to pose it as a continuation of Resnais’s exploration of notions of human freedom..

These are valid arguments, I suppose, but my personal theory is a little more simplistic. I think that he chose to do such a film simply because he decided that, deep down, he really wanted to make a silly, obviously stagy musical-comedy and felt that he had, after a long and distinguished career, earned the right to do just that. To attempt to dissect it further in the light of day instead of just reveling in the joys that it provides would be a mistake, the auteurist equivalent of cutting open a drum to find out how it makes its noise. Even Resnais himself seems to feel that way; instead of opening up the film, in the way that so many stage adaptations choose to do in order to make them feel more like a movie, he keeps the story almost entirely stagebound (admittedly on a stage far more lush and detailed than most theatrical companies could ever hope for) and when the characters make their exits, they literally fade from view–perhaps an admission on Resnais’s part that such frivolous characters could never exist in the real world.

Performing in a film such as this is actually trickier than it looks because the actors are essentially playing caricatures instead of characters and the only way to pull that off is to cast people who can throw themselves into their roles without any fear of looking foolish. The group that Resnais has assembled are up to the task; Azema is properly divaesque, Arditi is believably blind to all the nonsense going on around him and Tautou is appropriately wide-eyed in the ingenue role. The funniest performance comes from Lambert as the impossibly stiff American who steals entire scenes with his hilarious take on an American accent attempting to wrap itself around the language of love. And while none of the performers will be mistaken for expert singers and dancers anytime soon, they go through the motions with an exuberance that is infectious.

In recent years, the few major attempts to bring back film musicals have tried so hard to dazzle viewers, either with fancy editing (“Chicago”), fancier sets (“The Phantom of the Opera”) or by desperately trying to reinvent the genre (“Moulin Rouge”), that they have forgotten to simply be entertaining. “Not On the Lips”, on the other hand, is a sheer delight from beginning to end and is certain to have both buffs and naysayers leaving with songs in their hearts and their own lips upturned into silly grins. The only sad thing about the film is the fact that its criminally low profile may result in it simply getting overlooked. Just trust me, no matter what effort you have to go through in order to see it for yourself–sticking it on your Netflix list, pestering your local rental place or catching it at the Film Center (where all of its glories can truly be appreciated)–it will be worth it in the end.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=9188&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/18/05 06:48:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 City of Lights / City of Angels Film Festival. For more in the 2004 City of Lights / City of Angels Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Atlanta Film Festival For more in the 2005 Atlanta Film Festival series, click here.

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  22-Mar-2005 (NR)
  DVD: 22-Mar-2005



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