French helmer Marion Vernoux delivers a long and light tribute to emotional incontinence with “Love etc.,” a “Jules and Jim” without the tragedy. Adapting Julian Barnes’ inventive novel “Talking It Over,” Vernoux clearly hoped her pic would pique audience interest with a few understated script tricks that try to get an already too telegraphed storyline off the straight and narrow. But despite a fine cast, the result is mixed, as has been the pic’s B.O. reception at home. Other Euro markets may respond better, as will cable and TV outlets.
Vernoux’s first feature, “Nobody Loves Me,” established her as an elegant scripter with a sure hand in directing actors. Along with real-life partner Jacques Audiard (“A Self-Made Hero,” “See How They Fall”), the 30-year-old director is part of a Gallic scripting-directing powerhouse, although each works separately on different projects. As such, “Love etc.” was a much anticipated sophomore outing that attracted a trio of thesps who are local draws: Charlotte Gainsbourg (last seen in “Anna Oz”), Yvan Attal (“The Patriots”) and Charles Berling (“Ridicule”).
Benoit (Attal), a thirtyish nebbish working in a bank, is in the thrall of his unpredictable, artsy pal Pierre (Berling), whose well-aimed barbs about Benoit’s lack of success with women hit home. Through a personals ad, Benoit meets the quietly winning Marie (Gainsbourg), a 20-something Parisian who restores artworks.
Despite a lukewarm courtship, Marie marries the awkward Benoit, even as she becomes attracted to the far more playful Pierre, who begins to fall apart as he realizes the depth of his passion for Marie and the futility of his sleeping around with high-school cuties. He starts spying on the couple, and moves into a hotel from which he can watch Marie all day long.
When Benoit suggests that the unemployed Pierre spend some time with Marie while she works, it’s only a matter of time before the threesome talk things out and rearrange the angles of their uncomfortable triangle.
Gainsbourg’s Marie plays second fiddle to the friendship between the two men, even if it is she who disturbs their cozy master-and-servant relationship. As the weaker, straighter Benoit, Attal takes over the pic with a perf that makes his nerdishness almost likable. In the role of Pierre, Berling has a more difficult task — going from wildly carefree to whimperingly lovesick and remaining attractive in the process, a feat the actor struggles to pull off. In his lovesick stage, it is only when he takes to discussing his plight with strangers on park benches that Berling shows his comic flair, and Vernoux her scripting prowess.
Generous use of voiceover and frequently shifting p.o.v. in the early going mirrors the construction of Barnes’ novel. Unfortunately, these techniques are suddenly abandoned at pic’s halfway point, as if Vernoux lost faith in her ability to tell a fairly banal story in an interesting fashion. What could have been a stylistic hallmark of the pic instead ranks as a first-act curio.
Tech credits are first-rate, and Pierre-Yves Gayraud’s costumes never seem too stagy for this trio of emotional acrobats. Alexandre Desplat’s score is unobtrusive, as is the fluid lensing of Eric Gautier. It is a shame that, in the end, we care only about one of the three characters.