Friday January 12, 1996
Josiane Balasko's exhilarating and uninhibited "French Twist" just may be the funniest French comedy since "La Cage aux Folles"--and is just as much a gender-bender, with a good shot at becoming an across-the-board success like "La Cage."
Once again the French live up to their reputation of sophistication in matters of the heart, an understanding so essential to making mainstream audiences comfortable with what they often regard as unconventional relationships. At the same time Balasko, a veteran actress-writer-director, has clearly made a movie, which is France's official Oscar entry, to please herself.
Balasko also co-stars as Marijo, whose old van, painted hippie-style, breaks down in front of a charming villa in the south of France, the home of Laurent (Alain Chabat), a hotshot real estate broker, and his beautiful Barcelona-born wife Loli (Victoria Abril), who gave up her dancing career to become a housewife and mother to their two small children. Framed in a doorway, a bright outdoor light behind her, Marijo, in jeans and with cropped hair, is mistaken by Loli for a man. As it turns out, Marijo's arrival is timely, for Loli has been coping unsuccessfully with a clogged sink, a problem her guest handles with dispatch.
On a far more serious level, Marijo has turned up just as the trusting Loli is feeling increasingly neglected by Laurent, a shameless, self-satisfied philanderer, who so far has managed to keep his constant straying from his devoted wife. With admirable ingenuity, Balasko keeps forestalling Marijo's departure and engineers her returns every time she actually does leave. Thus Marijo is in the right place at the right time to extend open arms to Loli when she inevitably learns about Laurent's epic-scale infidelities.
Balasko has the kind of wisdom that allows her to be as daring as she is shrewd. She's so hard on the blatantly homophobic and hypocritical Laurent that she risks eliciting sympathy for him that he doesn't really deserve. But in truth she is paving the way for Laurent's enlightenment and transformation.
She well understands how profoundly threatened a man, no matter how unfaithful, can feel when his wife has spurned him for a woman. But this is just the beginning. Balasko maneuvers many a twist and turn in a plot in which her people have impacted upon each other so much that, armed with an often painfully acquired self-knowledge, they really are not the same individuals as when we first meet them.
While taking emotions seriously as French directors typically do, Balasko has a tremendous amount of affectionate fun with Loli, Laurent and Marijo as they sort out their entangled lives and emotions. She, Abril and Chabat all have the depth, range and skills to engage us with people undergoing crucial--and often abrasive--changes in how they view themselves and one another. Indeed, Balasko draws upon humor to set off just how agonizing it can be to square away a menage-a-trois.
In making "French Twist," Balasko has said quite rightly that gay men have a much higher profile on the screen than lesbians do. Yet her film really goes further than those mainstream hits "La Cage," "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," which confirm stereotypes of gays as nonthreatening drag queens. True, her Marijo is very "butch," but "French Twist" also shows that lesbians and bisexual women can also be undetectable in appearance. Beyond this, most important, "French Twist" suggests in its frequently hilarious fashion just how fluid sexual orientation can actually be.
French Twist, 1996. R, for sexuality and language. A Miramax release of a Claude Berri presentation of a co-production of Renn Productions/TF1 Films Production/Les Films Flam with the participation of Canal Plus. Director Josiane Balasko. Screenplay and dialogue by Balasko; adaptation by Telshe Boorman and Balasko. Executive producer Pierre Grunstein. Cinematographer Gerard De Battista. Editor Claudine Merlin. Costumes Fabienne Katany. Music Manuel Malou. Production designer Claude Parnet. Set designer Carlos Conti. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Josiane Balasko as Marijo. Victoria Abril as Loli. Alain Chabat as Laurent.