Belgian director Chantal Akerman and stars William Hurt and Juliette Binoche are not names automatically associated with screwball romantic comedy, and “A Couch in New York” illustrates why. Spun from the rather pedestrian premise of a cross-cultural meeting of opposites who attract, and saddled with dialogue only a screenwriter’s mother could love, this lifeless, mostly studio-shot confection of amour and analysis rarely puts a foot right. Prospects in some Euro territories (where it has been heavily pre-sold) look rosier than in the U.S., where theatrical pickup appears doubtful.
Binoche plays Beatrice, a free-spirited French dancer who responds to an ad for a temporary New York-Paris apartment swap placed by Hurt’s uptight Manhattan psychoanalyst Henry. Without meeting, the duo cross the Atlantic and set up house — she in the immaculate Upper East Side home in which he also receives clients, and he in her noisy, messy, run-down pied-a-terre.
Having fled the pressures of New York, his whining patients, his family and an engagement turned sour, Henry hopes Paris will provide food for his undernourished soul. Instead he is plagued by the demands of the string of heartsick Romeos abandoned by Beatrice. Meanwhile, she starts receiving Henry’s clients, who soon find her brand of ad hoc therapy more comforting than their regular shrink’s professional detachment.
Returning home unannounced, Henry stops by the apartment for his mail and is surprised to find his patients coming and going, looking relatively perky, and his normally morose, lazy dog, frolicking contentedly at Beatrice’s side. Intrigued by the woman, he poses as a couch case, enabling him to get close to her without revealing his identity. Her mixture of Freud for beginners, frankness and intuitive understanding encourages him to let down his guard, and love sneaks up on both of them.
Predictable romantic froth of this kind can be quite disarming with the right lightness of touch and sufficiently witty dialogue. “Couch,” however, comes up short on both counts. Akerman attempts to create a magical atmosphere akin to that of a musical, with blithely improbable narrative shortcuts and fairy-tale skies, but the result is flat and labored.
Several trademark characteristics of the director are in evidence: the accent on artifice; the vaguely stylized, unrealistic approach to performance; the long , slow takes and lengthy walking-and-talking tracking sequences. But the film has no forward motion.
Interiors were shot at Berlin’s Babelsberg Studios, and while these and the sprinkling of location work in Paris and Manhattan are elegantly photographed by Dietrich Lohmann with a rich, heightened sense of color, they contribute to the feeling that this artificial world could be easily contained on a stage.
The relative unimportance of the peripheral characters also keeps the pic’s scope narrow. The main characters each have a confidant: Beatrice’s dancer friend (Stephanie Buttle) and Henry’s Brooklyn buddy (Paul Guilfoyle). Both get considerable screen time, but, basically, this is a two-handed chamber piece.
Hurt and Binoche appear awkward in their roles, and the gradual melting of his aloofness and her spontaneity into a middle ground where sparks ignite is achieved rather mechanically. Binoche especially appears out of place; while the French thesp has consistently held her own as an intense, solemn beauty in pics such as “The Horseman on the Roof,””Damage” and “Three Colors: Blue,” her casting as an adorably irresponsible kook stretches credibility to the limit.