Scratch the surface

Getting past the barriers to human understanding.

IT'S A PITY that the When Harry Met Sally crowd flocks to see some trifle like What Women Want when the French can do that sort of thing so much better. What's that sort of thing? You know—relationships, with all their baffling conundrums: How do you get to know someone? Can you ever really know someone? And—this harkens back to Jane Austen, too—what if your first impression of someone is mistaken? What then?


directed by Agn賠Jaoui with Agn賠Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Anne Alvaro, and Alain Chabat runs March 23-29 at Varsity

What indeed? It's a tacit question that links and preoccupies all the members of a diverse circle swirling around the prosperous, uncouth businessman Castella (Jean-Pierre Bacri). He's got a chauffeur, Bruno (Alain Chabat), a bodyguard, Frank (G鲡rd Lanvin), and a ditzy, decor-obsessed wife who only loves her snarling lapdog. She drags her spouse to a local production of Racine, where—surprise!--the vulgar, haute bourgeois Castella is moved to tears by the actress performing the tragic role of B鲩nice, Clara (Anne Alvaro). After the show, 40-year-old Clara confides to her bartendress-dealer pal Manie (director Agn賠Jaoui) that she's "going nowhere, stagnant, still worried about the rent." That her midlife crisis should overlap with that of a vulgar factory owner is but the first of several delicious ironies in this expertly observed and plotted comedy of manners. As sensitive Bruno discovers an old connection with Manie, as flighty Manie in turn pursues stolid, cynical Frank, as Castella finds Clara is his English teacher—well, nothing is as it first seems to be.

Despite its abundance of characters and storylines, however, Taste is no mere farce or simple romantic comedy. Looking for love—and it's found in some cases—is less important than recovering the spark to stultified lives. Clara reminds Castella of lost passion as Manie reminds Bruno of lost opportunities. Discontent becomes discovery, but its course naturally remains just as tangled and obscure as the old dissatisfactions.

WHO CAN SAY what's wrong with their own life until another person crystallizes such inner crisis? Otherness forces a reconsideration of ourselves. Cowriters Jaoui and Bacri just earned French Cesar Awards for their script and film precisely because of Taste's philosophical concerns; it's undeniably Gallic in that regard, yet also more broadly accessible than any French film to reach Seattle in years. There are couples to root for, gags to amuse, plot twists to savor—all in search of harmony.

Throughout, Taste takes characters of disparate class and culture, collides them together in a centrifuge of coincidence, confuses matters with misplaced affections, and then lets things resolve in often unexpected directions. Gossamer arias suggest Castella's unformed longing (which he initially tries to sate with food), while the taste lag between condescending artists and their uncomprehending patrons raises many laughs.

In a uniformly excellent ensemble cast, one still has to single out Bacri as the sad-sack, bald, beleaguered executive. ("Mr. Moustache," he's taunted.) Determined to change his life, yet uncertain how to proceed, Castella's a figure who will resonate with any guy who's ever regretted a thoughtless remark, felt himself to be stupidly out of place, or pined for a woman promising love and transformation. Even after making a big gesture, he laments, "No one notices!" (Accomplished stage actress Alvaro also strongly recalls The West Wing's Allison Janney with her alarmed intelligence.)

Jaoui's direction is brisk and deft, even if she occasionally cuts on axis, spoiling the rhythm of certain scenes. Yet her nimble pace suits the film perfectly, pushing the story forward through all its minor implausibilities. The tone is lightly mocking but always generous; even Castella's overbearing wife is accorded her moments of humanity.

All of which goes to show, as one of Clara's theater friends remarks, "Funny how you sometimes get the wrong idea."

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