If Alexander Payne had been born in Normandy rather than Nebraska, he might have made a film like “Paris Follies,” a gently comedic portrait of a rural cow farmer trying to cope when his restless wife, Brigitte, leaves him for a big-city fling. Though a bit too provincial to be much of a draw even in its native France, Marc Fitoussi’s slyly observant romance offers a welcome opportunity to re-enlist actress Isabelle Huppert after their keen collaboration on “Copacabana,” a superior film that remains undistributed in the U.S. — no doubt a discouraging sign for this relatively banal reunion.
Claudia Llosa’s recent Berlinale entry “Aloft” opened with a gritty scene of Jennifer Connelly plunging her arm deep into a cow’s insides to help pry forth a calf. As fearless an actress as they come, Huppert would no doubt welcome such a challenge, and though “Paris Follies” takes place on a farm where such scenes are commonplace, the film lets Huppert off easy. In what amounts to a lark, the French star gets to play dress-up as the petite bergere, as convincing in her “little shepherdess” drag as Marie Antoinette must have been back in the day.
This, we learn, is precisely why Xavier (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) originally fell for Brigitte: She was and remains a dreamer, her head floating somewhere above the grungy reality of the couple’s dull farm routine. These days, it has become increasingly difficult for young French farmers to find local wives. The small-town girls are lured away by all the city offers — and so is Brigitte, who sports a fur hat the likes of which one might expect to see Marlene Dietrich wear if ever she were reduced to field work. But Brigitte doesn’t feel especially elegant; nor is she shot that way by d.p. Agnes Godard, who invites the sort of intimacy where this self-conscious housewife can been seen nursing a nasty pink rash on her chest and reflecting on all the hopes that never quite panned out.
Now that their son has left for school, however, Brigitte starts to feel a bit more free. She accepts an invitation to a house party next door, moving about the twentysomething crowd like an alien until a stubble-chinned cutie (Pio Marmai) pulls her aside and starts to flirt. She’s flattered by the attention and decides to look the guy up in Paris later the same week, searching one American Apparel store after another until she finds the one where he works.
As casual romances go, this one’s as low-key as they get, but then, while Fitoussi clearly sympathizes with Brigitte, the director opts to show things from her husband’s p.o.v. Convinced that he’s about to be cuckolded, Xavier shadows his wife to Paris and studies her fling from the sidelines. The film indulges a montage of all the usual Paris attractions — a vicarious romp through tourist checkpoints, likely to delight anyone watching the film from far-away shores — followed by outings with the young stud, a trip to the opera with a smitten Dutch businessman (Michael Nyqvist) and an act of kindness shown to an Indian fruit seller (Lakshan Abenayake).
Though superficially fluffy, “Paris Follies” undeniably recognizes certain deeper truths, the best of which go unspoken, captured via body language and lingering glances between characters. There’s such tenderness and quiet heartbreak in the way Darroussin plays his part, as if discovering his wife all over again. Those who know Huppert’s work well will discover a different side of her as well, with one silent look late in the film expressing more than a dozen monologues ever could. Here is a quiet film about yearning, and it helps that its heroes aren’t so glamorous as to be rendered unrelatable, for their feelings are universal.