A frothy period romp brimming with allure and spark, “Never Say Never!” is a consistently entertaining tale of love and money peppered with unscrupulous ruses, sharp repartee and the dangers of brigand-filled Paris. Alfred de Musset’s 1836 comic play concerns a dissolute playboy who accepts a tricky wager in order to pay off his own debts and enhance his uncle’s business prospects. Marbled with mercenary motives and the triumph of frank desire, this spirited, classy and well-cast adaptation should do nicely on home turf. In a perfect world, offshore prospects would also be a sure bet.
It’s 1830, and the alleged benefits of the French Revolution still rankle certain members of the military and merchant class who intend to revive the throne. Many an aristocrat has fallen on hard times, including canny Baroness de Mantes (Marie-France Santon), who has a chateau outside Paris and a fetching marriageable daughter, Cecile (Melanie Doutey).
First glimpsed in extreme close-up sneaking a cigarette, Cecile is the Gallic equivalent of Keira Knightly’s feisty lass in “Pirates of the Caribbean” — lovely, smart, headstrong and a mean shot who knows her way around a fencing foil.
Cecile has many suitors but, to her penniless mother’s dismay, she’s holding out for a meeting of the minds and hearts rather than titles and estates.
Widower Van Buck (Gerard Jugnot) owns a bustling tailor shop. As an official of the committee to restore the monarchy, he rubs elbows with men whose names now grace history books.
Van Buck becomes obsessed with building a bigger store of his own and giving it a chic name. When Baroness de Mantes places a large order for costumes and finery for her annual ball — a shindig she can’t possibly afford — Van Buck, inspired by his first commission from a noble, starts thinking big indeed. The pragmatic pair strike a deal without consulting the youngsters concerned: Cecile will marry Van Buck’s nephew, their family names will be united for mutual enhancement and Van Buck will underwrite the Baroness’s ball.
The nephew, Valentin (Jean Dujardin, playing a much sharper fellow than his clueless surfer dude in recent smash “Brice de Nice”) is introduced blindfolded in a brothel, where he delights in guessing the fragrances dabbed on tongues and breasts thrust into his grinning mouth. He has run up a colossal tab.
When his uncle demands Valentin marry Cecile, the arrangement takes the form of a bet. If Valentin can seduce the junior baroness before midnight the next night, thereby proving she’s no different than any other perfidious and worthless wench, Valentin wins. But the spunky and devilishly attractive Cecile is hard to get in a way he’s never encountered before.
Via wordplay and occasional knife play, the remainder of the fast-paced pic is a skillfully prolonged bout of foreplay as the clock ticks, loins stir and the stakes rise.
Story’s appeal is that it brims with cynical knowingness and expedient lust, but still leaves room for the eternal lure of true love.
Eduardo Serra’s polished widescreen lensing makes fine use of Paris locations peopled with convincing extras. Thesps imbue the proceedings with swagger, sass and painfully polite hypocrisy, as required.