It’s all “a piano bar story,” croons husky jazz chanteuse Patricia Kaas at several points during “And Now…Ladies and Gentlemen” — and that just about sums up multi-hyphenate auteur Claude Lelouch’s 38th feature, which closed this year’s Cannes fest. A good-looking but slim confection that’s short on the multi-characterisation and sense of entwined destinies that mark the great Lelouch sagas, pic will be tolerated as a divertissement by the filmmaker’s admirers but dismissed as frippery by his detractors. B.O. looks to be soft in most territories outside France (where popular Kaas should draw the curious), and particularly perilous in English-speaking territories, for which Par Classics snapped up all rights pre-Cannes. Both Lelouch and co-star Jeremy Irons’ names are far from natural draws in Anglo markets.
After a suitably romantic introductory caption – “Life is a deep sleep, of which love is the dream” – picture initially raises hopes that this will be a splashy, song-filled romantic odyssey hinted at by the showbizzy title, Kaas’ presence and the promise of Moroccan locations. In lively style, film cross-cuts between the characters of professional English jewel thief Valentine (Irons) and French singer Jane (Kaas), as the former pulls off comically daring, one-man bluffs and the second performs jazz classics on stage.
In fact, both characters are at the end of their rope. Valentine wants to put his past behind him and start a new life, and Jane is upset by “all the lies,” especially from her trumpet-playing b.f. (Samuel Labarthe) who is playing footsie with her best friend. So, much to the distress of his wife and co-conspirator of seven years (Alessandra Martines), Valentine buys a massive yacht to sail round the world and draw a line under his career, while Jane accepts a hotel singing gig in North Africa to clear her mind.
After this fairly leisurely 45-minute set-up, the action switches to Morocco, where Valentine lands by chance. Turns out that he, like Jane, suffers from mysterious blackouts during which he can remember nothing, and by a circuitous route both find themselves in the same hotel in scenic Fez, where they finally meet and wait for CAT scans to see if they have brain tumors.
In a lovely scene where Kaas, in her first movie role, shows she has beaucoup screen allure, both characters lightly flirt with each other over a poolside breakfast after she has just given him an unexpected alibi for a diamond robbery in the hotel. The relationship between the two briefly sparkles before settling down into dull good manners as Valentine accompanies her on a pilgrimage to a healing shrine at Moulay-Yacoub, while a cop (Amidou) back in Fez tries to pin the robbery on him.
For the normally life-celebrating Lelouch, this is uncommonly downbeat material, taking a long look at two burned-out people’s acceptance of almost inevitable death. And despite the musical interludes by Kaas, and the often stunning widescreen photography of Fez cityscapes and the surrounding desert, the lassitude of the two central characters unfortunately informs a lot of the film.
What is most missing, however, is the multitude of criss-crossing character strands and sense of shared destinies that mark the great Lelouch movies of the ’80s and ’90s, such as “Les uns et les autres,” “Itinerary of a Spoiled Child,” “Il y a des jours…et des lunes” and “Les Miserables.” In “Ladies and Gentlemen,” not only are there very few through-characters (Valentine’s wife is abandoned early on) but a side group in Morocco consisting of a boxer (Ticky Holgado), his wife (Sylvie Loeillet) and a wandering charmer (Yvan Attal) are never fully incorporated into the main plot.
As a result, pic lacks the usual joyous sense of resolution that ties up all the loose ends in a Lelouch movie as it celebrates life, love and companionship, often in musical terms. Here, there’s a sense of forced bloom from thin soil.
Irons is at his more charming and relaxed, and performs easily in the majority-French dialogue, yet he still strikes few sparks with the stunning looking but largely unemotive Kaas. In her few scenes in the first act, Martines is very natural, especially opposite a playful Thierry Lhermitte in a small role as her potential lover. In the Morocco section, Amidou is flavorsome as the cop on Valentine’s tail, and Claudia Cardinale totally extravagant as the veteran contessa whose rocks go missing.