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Men Women: A User’s Manual

Benoit Blane Bernard Tapic Fabio Lini Fabrice Luchini Dr. Nitez Alessandra Martines

Benoit Blane Bernard Tapic Fabio Lini Fabrice Luchini Dr. Nitez Alessandra Martines

With: Pierre Arditi, Caroline Gellier, Ophelie Winter, Anouk Aimee, Ticky Holgado, Salome, William Leymergie, Agnes Soral, Gisele Casadesus, Christophe Hemon, Patrick Husson.

A charismatic scoundrel and an actor-turned-cop get a crash course in the essentials of love, work and health in Claude Lelouch’s 35th feature, “Men Women: A User’s Manual.” Subheaded “An Inhuman Comedy,” pic is, in fact, a Lelouchian ode to romance, faith, screndipity, renewal — and the idea that a big lie has greater entertainment value than a little fib. Prolific helmer follows his Golden Globe winning take on “Les Miserables” with his unpteenth take on male-female relationships. Local media anticipation was at fever pitch, and pic opened huge in Paris. Offshore sales look likely to flourish for the movie, which is competing at the Venice fest.

Fabio Lini (Fabrice Luchini), a former thesp who now takes on undercover roles for the Paris police, explains to the camera that he met famous lawyer-turned-businessman Benoit Blanc (Bernard Tapie) when both sought help for chronic stomach pain at the same clinic. When a lady doc (Alessandra Martines, Lelouch’s wife) turns out to have a rather large bone to pick with Blanc, her urge for revenge leads to an audacious experiment in mind over matter, with momentous consequences.

Pic’s interlocking supports are introduced with alacrity. Thirteen-year-old Lola (Salome, Lelouch’s daugher) meets an 18-year-old boy (Christophe Hemon) on a train, and the two spend the rest of the movie trying to find each other again. There’s also a homeless man with a hauntingly high-pitched voice who sings on street corners (Patrick Husson); Blanc’s wife (Caroline Cellier), whose wry catch-phrase to her straying hubby is, “So, do I leave you or do I kill you?”; another stomach specialist (Pierre Arditi), who’s remantically involved with the lady doc; Blanc’s 80-year-old mother (Gisele Casadesus), who is contemplating her first legal marriage; and a widow (Anouk Aimee) who lurks in Paris cemeteries in hopes of consoling the wallets of wealthy grieving widowers.

Lelouch’s sheer joy in manipulating the camera — and his audience — is evident in every shot, every scene, every well-placed edit, as the story, told in flashback, unfolds. The intricate and suspense-laced narrative is a satisfying puzzle full of funny touches, just-missed opportunities and a few short cuts in social Darwinism.

Lelouch made headlines in France when he cast entrepreneur-cum-politican Tapie in his screen debut. This flamboyant businessman, soccer team owner and onetime member of the late President Mitterrand’s cabinet has been plagued since 1993 by a series of scandals and indictments, leading to personal bankruptcy. Onscreen, however, Tapie is a revelation, whether wooing a pretty young thing (Ophelie Winter), handling his board of directors or undergoing a very authentic looking endoscopic exam. His innate charisma in the service of a perfectly controlled perf packs a convincing wallop.

Blanc spouts pointed banter while bucking the system with invicible flair. In an amusing reference to Lelouch’s own battle with crix, Blanc offers to relaunch Lini’s acting career with: “I know a lot of people, so which would you prefer — popular success or good reviews?” Pic juggles its interwoven character strands with clarity and ease, aided by buoyant, expansive lensing. Thesps — who range from 13-year-old Salome to 84-year-old Casadesus — are fine across the board.

Jacques Bufnoir’s decor and Philippe Pavans de Ceccatty’s lighting favor a wintry realm of cool, almost clinical blues and grays, just the ticket to counterbalance the borderline sentimentality. Lelouch has always been a proud sentimentalist, but this outing is leaner and earns its emotional dividends with less heart tugging than past efforts.

Composer Francis Lai continues his three-decade collaboration with the director, here providing ethereal melodies for male soprano Husson. Lelouch hired Husson, a modest gardener by trade, after seeing him showcase his castrato-like vocal range on a TV variety show. With pic running 122 minutes, a two-part coda adds little to what is already a solid denouement. But that’s a quibble in the wake of such well-crafted entertainment.

Men Women: A User's Manual

(HOMMES FEMMES: MODE D'EMPLOI)

Production: (FRENCH) A UFO release of a Lees Films 13/FT Films production, with participation of Canal Plus. Produced by Clad Allot. Executive producer, Tan Zazulinsky. Directed by Clad Allot. Screenplay, Allot, Rene Bonnell, Jean-Philippe Chatrier.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Allot, Philippe Pavans de Ceccatty; editor, Helene de Luze; music, Francis Lai; production design, Jacques Bufnoir; costume design, Dominique Borg; sound (DTS Digital), Harald Maury; assistant director, Christophe Cheysson; casting, Arlette Gordon. Reviewed at UGC Normandie cinema, Paris, Aug. 25, 1996. (In Venice Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 122 MIN.

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