Pierre Salvadori's "Après Vous" is a romantic comedy in the classic French tradition, which means that Salvadori always takes emotions seriously no matter how abundant the laughter he inspires.
This delightfully spirited film is perfectly cast, and it's hard to imagine how Daniel Auteuil, José Garcia and Sandrine Kiberlain could possibly improve upon their irresistible, multifaceted portrayals. At 110 minutes, the film is arguably overlong for its genre, yet Salvadori, in developing an idea contributed by Danièle Dubroux, uses his substantial running time wisely, allowing the arcs of his engaging characters to come full circle.
Auteuil's Antoine is the seasoned headwaiter at an elegant Paris restaurant. Not only is he an invaluable employee, but he's also a good-hearted man quick to solve other people's problems. His dedication has already made him late for a dinner date with his live-in lover, Christine (Marilyne Canto), when, while taking a short cut through a park, he witnesses a young man, Louis (Garcia), attempting to hang himself. The instant Antoine saves Louis' life he immediately starts carrying the creed of being "my brother's keeper" to hilarious extremes.
Louis is a big, solidly built teddy bear of a man with a boyish face and dark moist eyes — and the very embodiment of emotional immaturity. His girlfriend, Blanche (Kiberlain), has left him, and his self-pity is so complete that only Antoine could have a prayer of pulling him out of his misery — and not surprisingly at often comic but also real cost to Antoine's own happiness and security.
Gradually, Antoine comes to believe that only his tracking down Blanche and effecting a reconciliation between the two will truly restore Louis. But when Antoine finally succeeds in locating Blanche, who is running a flower shop not far from the restaurant, he is not prepared to find himself attracted to this exquisite young woman. Not helping matters for Antoine is Blanche's adamant refusal to have anything to do with Louis.
The versatile Auteuil has long been the premier actor of his generation in the French cinema, and his Antoine remains endearing even at his most foolishly self-sacrificing. By the same token, Garcia's Louis is such an innocent through and through that even at his most infuriating it would be hard to reject him out of hand.
In recent years, Kiberlain has stood out in numerous featured parts, but here she comes across as a full-fledged leading lady, an aristocratic beauty and an altogether lovely, distinctive screen presence.
A most satisfying diversion, "Après Vous" is a graceful, witty film rich in winning portrayals, with fluid cinematography and an aptly jaunty score.
MPAA rating: R for language
Times guidelines: Mature themes
A Paramount Classics release
Director Pierre Salvadori. Producer Philippe Martin. Screenplay by Salvadori, Benoît Graffin; based on an idea by Danièle Dubroux. Dialogue by Salvadori. Screenplay collaboration David Colombo Leotard, Marc Syrigas. Cinematographer Gilles Henry. Editor Isabelle Devinck.
In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Exclusively at the Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581.
It takes a while for this waiter to look out for No. 1. But Daniel Auteuil takes good care of him.
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