In what is pretty much the closest thing French cinema will produce to a Hollywood-style romantic comedy this year, Justine Triet’s “In Bed With Victoria” offers both the candor and the schmaltz of “Trainwreck.” Innovative to the extent that it recognizes the sexual allure, as well as the desires, of its leading lady (played by Virginie Efira), without turning her into an object of lust, the commercially minded film centers on a Paris lawyer who’s as shrewd as they come in a courtroom, but something of a disaster in her private affairs. The pic should get a boost in France, if not so much abroad, from the fact it kicks off Cannes Critics’ Week.
Efira, a blonde actress with a baby-doll face and wolf-whistle curves (but nary a trace of Amy Schumer’s physical comedy instincts, alas), Victoria struggles with the responsibilities of single-motherhood, pawning off her two young daughters, first on a babysitter, and later on her much-younger love interest, Sam (Vincent Lacoste). When not juggling a creepy legal case — taken on as a sorta-kinda favor to her friend Vincent (Melvil Poupaud), who’s accused of stabbing his girlfriend in the gut — Victoria tends to her own urges, cycling online hookups through her cluttered apartment.
If that makes her sound like an empowered 21st-century woman, think again. Victoria can barely escape the judgment of her ex-husband, who has been using his new-found fame as a blogger to paint her as the harlot, spilling not only the fact that she once had a fling with a judge (a professional no-no), but also revealing extremely sensitive information about past clients (potentially enough to get her disbarred). As it happens, Victoria is already in hot water, having spoken to a witness in Vincent’s case — for which she’s suspended from practicing law for six months.
A six-month sanction might give a trainwreck like Victoria enough time to get her life in order, but instead, she slips further off the rails, her half-year slump cycling by like a cheery Snapchat montage. When she resurfaces, she has two cases looming in court: First, there’s Vincent’s increasingly surreal harassment case, which now hinges on “testimony” from animal character witnesses (a chimpanzee and Dalmation take the stand), and second, she lawyers-up to sue her ex for libel (he pompously defends himself), while his blogger buddies rally to his corner, cheering his right to humiliate her.
No one comes right out and mentions the battle of the sexes here, but it’s clear that Triet has that struggle in mind. But rather than inventing a heroic Erin Brockovich type to take on the system, she presents a fallible, identifiably human character in Victoria — the sort of sloppy, love-starved protagonist most audiences wouldn’t even pause to question if she were male. The fact that the director offers the 15-years-younger Sam as Victoria’s potential salvation is merely the icing on the cake, as the gender-flipped alternative is practically a cliché at this point (from “Casablanca” to “As Good as It Gets,” to say nothing of Woody Allen).
That defiant tweak on the formula doesn’t necessarily mean the romantic subplot works, however, and despite the film’s frisky-sounding English-language title, Victoria’s sex life is just about the least interesting aspect of “In Bed With Victoria.” Regardless of how one feels toward Lacoste — a sleepy-eyed, mussy-haired jellyfish of a man-boy, whose pouty charm depends largely on how appealing one considers apathy to be (or maybe it’s the lingering effect on him of Julie Delpy’s fingernail-curling “Lolo”) — Sam seems an improbable suitor at best. A former client in need of both a job and a couch to crash on, he talks his way into working as Victoria’s live-in assistant, turning a blind eye to her parade of one-night stands, while offering moral support during her panic attacks (a role usually given to whoever’s on gay-best-friend duty in American films).
Sam disappears during the most interesting part of the film, when Victoria argues her case before a female judge (whose bemused reactions suggest that her life also may be more complicated outside the courtroom), but shows up again just as the film is looking for a neat little bow to signal that Victoria has Figured It All Out. If anything, what Triet has done is demonstrate that people are allowed to be complicated — and at times contradictory. And the tidy Hollywood ending betrays the fact that Victoria’s problems have less to do with sorting out who’s in her bed than what’s in her head.