Leo McCarey’s 1957 romance “An Affair to Remember” may not be the best movie romance ever made, but it’s very unwise to include generous excerpts from it in a contemporary romance as awful as “Nearest to Heaven.” The evident chemistry between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr is spectacularly lacking in scenes between Catherine Deneuve and William Hurt in this unusually clunky potboiler. Only the most devout Deneuve fans will line up, and even ancillary prospects look poor once the word gets out.
Nora Ephron’s “Sleepless in Seattle” also quoted McCarey’s film and succeeded in re-introducing it to a wide contemporary audience as one of Hollywood’s most adroit tearjerkers; but “Seattle” delivered the goods as a memorable romance on its own terms, something “Nearest to Heaven” (the title refers to the line about the top of the Empire State Building being “the nearest place to heaven in New York”) singularly fails to do.
Deneuve plays Fanette, a lonely Parisienne of a certain age, engaged in preparing a book about the work of abstract painter Francois Arnal, who appears in the film as himself. A chance meeting with Bernard (Bernard Le Coq), who bitterly claims to have adored her when they were students together, triggers memories of Philippe, the love of her life. It just so happens that the favorite movie of Fanette and Philippe during their romance was “An Affair to Remember,” and, since it’s showing in a revival in Paris, Fanette begins making regular visits to see it over and over again. In one silly scene, she enters the cinema without paying and is ejected by the manager.
When Fanette receives a letter from Philippe suggesting a rendezvous at the top of the Empire State Building, she takes off for New York, using the excuse of needing photographs of artworks for her book. In the Big Apple, she meets photographer Matt (Hurt), who drives her to Boston, where one of the paintings is located. What follows is meant to be exciting and romantic, but comes across as insipid and dull. Pic reaches rock bottom in what’s supposed to be an erotic and intimate moment in a bar, but which is just rather objectionable.
There are no prizes for guessing how the film will conclude, though the spectacularly unbecoming dress designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, no less, for Deneuve to wear in the sequence involving Fanette’s big date provides the film with one of its few startling elements, though for all the wrong reasons.
Deneuve appears uncomfortable throughout, and Hurt never convinces as a romantic character in the Cary Grant tradition. Among the supporting cast, Patrice Chereau overplays a cameo appearance as a drunken friend of Fanette.
Tonie Marshall’s direction is far from inspired, and even Agnes Godard’s widescreen camerawork is unattractive and prosaic. Montreal stands in for New York in some scenes in a film that is technically OK but far below the best standard of French or American romantic cinema.