A beautifully made dramedy about a one-night stand, “Mademoiselle” is probably very close to how David Lean would have approached “Brief Encounter” if he set out to make it today. In his third delightful feature, soundman-turned-scripter/director Philippe Lioret proves he is the very thing industry pundits claim they’re in search of but overlook when he’s right under their noses: a talented filmmaker with a light yet meaningful touch who knows how to tell a story, show actors at their best and make audiences chuckle.
Lioret’s “Lost in Transit” (1993) and “Proper Attire Required” (1996) were sweetly comical ensemblers. This third outing — basically a two-hander, with excellent supporting perfs — is far more mature yet never stodgy. The cast positively glows even though there’s an undercurrent of aching melancholy to their actions; and the perfectly dosed script, beautifully served by thesps, elevates a banal encounter into an attenuated jolt with pleasant aftershocks.
Pierre (Jacques Gamblin), Alice (Isabelle Candelier) and Karim (Zinedine Soualem) are a traveling improv troupe called the Unpredictables. They excel at blending into functions such as conventions and weddings, where, in the guise of waiters, they wreak havoc by saying and doing inappropriate things (e.g. “I wouldn’t eat the salmon — it’s been genetically modified”). Their antics are applauded when they reveal the extent of their pranks hours later.Fooled while attending a conference, pharmaceutical exec Claire (Sandrine Bonnaire) admires the troupe’s freewheeling audacity as they perform witty closing night improvs based on audience suggestions. When she misses her train the next morning, Claire accepts a lift from the trio, who are on their way to perform at a wedding. She ends up staying for the wedding and more or less is willingly stranded for the night.
Married for eight years and with two children, Claire is fairly conventional; yet it is she who encourages tentative affection from bachelor Pierre. “You have my word as a mime,” is the sort of thing Pierre says, but there’s something serious at work beneath his carefree performing demeanor.
The whole movie, told in flashback from Claire’s p.o.v., covers barely 36 hours, and Lioret renders the uncalculating mechanism of romantic serendipity absolutely convincing. By small increments, the viewer is drawn into a budding complicity that’s spontaneous and joyful, yet already tinged with melancholy and loss.Situational humor is splendidly dosed, and the metaphor of improvisation is never heavy-handed. Lioret’s powers of observation make this trim, affecting film an ode to unexpected emotions and how a brief experiment with a brand new crayon can color a life. Gorgeous lensing brings utterly mundane settings alive, and the score — ’40s Hollywoodian with a touch of jazz — is spot-on.