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Tres bien, merci

Smoking proves hazardous to a man's health, but not for the customary reasons, in the rewardingly Kafkaesque "Tres bien, merci." Compact and pleasingly perverse, this cautionary tale about stepping out of line is a slyly entertaining look at the compound indignities of modern life.

With:
With: Gilbert Melki, Sandrine Kiberlain, Olivier Cruveiller, Christophe Odent, Nathalie Akoun-Cruveiller, Frederic Pierrot, Camille Japy, Emmanuel Salinger.

Smoking proves hazardous to a man’s health, but not for the customary reasons, in the rewardingly Kafkaesque “Tres bien, merci.” Compact and pleasingly perverse, this cautionary tale about stepping out of line is a slyly entertaining look at the compound indignities of modern life. A dandy central perf by Gilbert Melki and a universal theme treated with Gallic flair make this April 25 release a gem for fests and a possible bet for niche distribs.

Devoted husband and conscientious employee Alex (Melki) has a solid, loving relationship with his wife of 10 years, Beatrice (Sandrine Kiberlain), a Paris cab driver. They’re hard-working, decent people. Alex’s contretemps with the system starts when he’s busted by transit inspectors for lighting a cigarette just a few yards shy of a metro exit. At first he refuses to pay the fine, but relents when the inspectors threaten to call the cops.

Alex seems to be valued at the firm where he has worked as an accountant for seven years, but he’s been known to sneak a cigarette in a men’s room stall, despite a smoking ban. His boss asks him to investigate the expense report of a friend and colleague, Landier (Olivier Cruveiller), which makes Alex uncomfortable.

On his way home at night, Alex runs into several cops doing an ID check on a young couple. Fascinated — and assuming it’s his right as a citizen — he decides to stand and watch, even though he’s repeatedly told to move along. When Alex refuses, he’s thrown in jail for the night. Released early the next morning, he demands an explanation — and ends up in a psychiatric clinic for observation.

Matters go downhill from there, although Alex’s demeanor is consistently rational in response to authoritarian lunacy. Beatrice stands by him, but Alex’s unexplained absence from work creates problems.

In its attention to pragmatic detail anchored in social realities, the pic could be read as a comic update of Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man.” Sophomore co-scripter/helmer Emmanuelle Cuau (1995’s “Circuit Carole”) deftly conveys the stigma of being considered guilty until proven innocent. What might qualify as “proof” is always a micron out of reach.

Tone is a pleasing mix of the jaunty and unsettling. As ridiculous as Alex’s dilemma is, aud sees how he got there and can’t help questioning the current yardsticks for “normal” behavior.

Wry, slightly aloof pic sometimes seems like the sort of minimalist social tale in which there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But the script confounds expectations with a satisfying twist.

Tres bien, merci

France

Production: A Gemini Films release and production, with participation of CNC, CineCinema, Canal Plus. (International sales: Gemini, Paris.) Produced by Paulo Branco. Directed by Emmanuelle Cuau. Screenplay, Agnes Caffin, Cuau.

Crew: Camera (color), Bruno De Keyzer; editor, Jackie Bastide; music, Leopold Mozart; production designer, Veronique Barneoud; costume designer, Dorothee Lissac; sound (Dolby), Gerard Rousseau. Reviewed at Gaumont Opera, Paris, Jan. 13, 2007. Running time: 105 MIN.

With: With: Gilbert Melki, Sandrine Kiberlain, Olivier Cruveiller, Christophe Odent, Nathalie Akoun-Cruveiller, Frederic Pierrot, Camille Japy, Emmanuel Salinger.

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