Various lives intersect with results yet to be determined in “1999 Madeleine,” first in a series of 10 movies (one a year for the next decade) by director Laurent Bouhnik that by 2009 will have built into the ultimate crisscrosser. This opening stanza, a sly romantic comedy centered on a lonely single woman, reps an impressive start, though it’s strictly hard-core arthouse fare, beyond the small screen.
Vera Briole deservedly won best actress award at the Locarno festival for her portrayal of Madeleine, a plain, though not unattractive, woman in her 30s who lives in a manically ordered apartment and whose social calendar is emptier than the Virgin Mary’s. A guy she takes pity on by offering him bus fare subsequently sits next to her and squeezes her thigh; a vacuum cleaner salesman is friendly but indecisive. Her family isn’t much help: Mother (Anouk Aimee in a small role) keeps losing her memory and Father is depressed.
In an attempt to expand her horizons, Madeleine joins a judo club where the vacuum salesman and his pal work out; but she’s so exhausted after her first session of repeatedly hitting the mat that she can hardly climb out of bed the next morning.
In an act of sheer desperation that’s touching, funny and uncomfortable, Madeleine turns up one evening at the salesman’s door and invites herself to dinner with him and his wife. After the couple row, he and Madeleine repair to a bar, get drunk and end up in bed; but next morning he simply apologizes and leaves. Then, by pure chance, Madeleine again meets the guy on the bus, they talk, and … up pops the caption “To be continued.”
Bouhnik’s previous features, “Select Hotel” and “Zonzon,” were tough, realist works; “1999 Madeleine,” despite its lonesome central character and extremely precise, clean lensing, has much more warmth, and considerable straight-faced humor in observing social rituals. Briole has little dialogue but an extremely expressive face and body that are put under the microscope by Bouhnik’s focused camerawork. Where the decalogue will lead is anybody’s guess, but this is certainly an intriguing start.