Friday October 27, 2000
The enchanting "Venus Beauty Institute" tells just such a tale. The toast of last year's Cesars, the French Oscars, it took home awards for best picture, best director, best young actress and best screenplay and was a best actress contender as well for its star, the marvelous Nathalie Baye. A rueful examination of the comedy, the pain, the unexpectedness of love, this adult fairy tale may sound familiar, but the way it plays is not like that at all.
That's due to the deft and delicate touch of writer-director Tonie Marshall, the daughter of American actor-director William Marshall and French actress Michelin Presle (seen in a cameo as one of a pair of aunts.) With additional work from writers Mario Vernoux and Jacques Audiard, "Venus Beauty Institute" has more than an unexpectedly playful and pointed sense of humor, it has the gift of joining threads of sensuality, longing and anger to its comedy, tones not usually found sharing the same film.
Marshall wrote "Venus' " lead specifically for Baye, one of the great stars of modern French film, perhaps best known in this country for her role in "The Return of Martin Guerre." An alive and expressive actress, Baye uses the craft accumulated in a 50-plus feature career to turn Angele the beautician into one of her strongest performances. Sadness, anticipation, pity, fury, frankness, humor and love, all these emotions and more play across her face as Angele tries to cope with the choices life has given her.
With its hypnotic pink and blue pastel lights, harp-noted door chimes and piles of products like Serenity No-Blot and Aquaenzyme Facial, the Venus Beauty Institute, the Parisian salon where Angele works, is almost as much of a character as the staff and the pampered, demanding clientele.
Owned by the regal Madame Nadine (an excellent Bulle Ogier, pretty much defining what's meant by a woman of a certain age), the institute is staffed by a trio of pink-smocked beauticians, as different as their uniforms are identical.
Samantha (Mathilde Seigner, Emmanuelle Seigner's sister) is a major coquette who likes to boast of having "sex ray vision." Marie (Cesar winner Audrey Tautou) is as young and naive as her braids indicate, but with a quality that attracts the attention of a widowed pilot (the veteran Robert Hossein). And then there is Angele, the oldest, the wisest and in some ways the saddest.
The institute's clients are also a various lot, and filmmaker Marshall has a graceful ability to amusingly characterize them without turning them into caricatures. We hear everyone's secrets, but it's the love lives of the beauticians we follow, and Angele's most of all.
She's 40, we hear Angele confessing to a lover at a train station just before we see what had been the briefest of relationships collapse in a welter of recriminations. Angry and tough though she can seem, there is a kind of aching desperation about Angele she won't acknowledge, a vulnerability she tries to pretend she doesn't have.
As "Venus" progresses, we learn more about this woman, about her reasons for preferring brief affairs and one-night stands (she calls them "flirts") to relationships, about what has led her to dismiss the possibility of lasting beauty in her own life. And so it might have remained, except for another man at the same train station cafe.
Seated at the table next to her, young and handsome Antoine (Samuelle Bihan) is struck by a classic coup de foudre, falling instantly and savagely in love with Angele. He tracks her down to the salon, tells her of his passion, and then finds he has to deal with this woman's absolute contempt for love, her vehemently expressed feeling that it's simply "another form of slavery." Let the contest begin.
Though "Venus Beauty Institute" can sound schematic in outline, the combination of Baye's tour de force performance and Marshall's ability to convince us that this story has never been told quite this way before are a powerful combination. There is a sophistication about affairs of the heart, about the wisdom and the risks of romantic involvement that is more than quintessentially French. It's irresistible as well.
Venus Beauty Institute, 2000. Unrated. Released by Lot 47 Films. Director Tonie Marshall. Screenplay Tonie Marshall. Co-screenwriters Mario Vernoux, Jacques Audiard. Cinematographers Gerard De Battista, Eric Brun, Stephane Degnieau. Editors Jean-Jacques Ferran, Eric Thomas. Costumes Nathalie Duroscoat, Clair Gerard-Hirne. Set decorator Michel Vandestien. Running time 1 hour, 45 minutes. Nathalie Baye as Angele. Bulle Ogier as Madame Nadine. Samuelle Bihan as Antoine. Jacques Bonnaffe as Jacques. Mathilde Seigner as Samantha. Audrey Tautou as Marie.