A shallow film about shallow people, “Shadow Play” reps a wonky sophomore effort by French director Martine Dugowson after her interesting bow two years ago with “Mina Tannenbaum.” Cast in depth with name Euro players who are never less than watchable and often highly engaging, pic is hobbled by a script that isn’t half as perceptive as it would like to be, direction that never establishes a real rhythm, and a length that’s a good half-hour into extra time. Film could see some early action in Gaul on the basis of its cast, but export potential looks limited without a serious rethink at the editing table.
In the film’s best and most sustained performance, Helena Bonham Carter toplines as Ada, a hot but in-debt fashion designer first seen buying an apartment with her b.f., a screenwriter. The others in their circle are rapidly introduced: fellow screenwriter Guido (Sergio Castellito), who’s been blocked since his girlfriend sexually humiliated him; Ada’s boss, Rene (Jean-Claude Brialy), going through a career crisis; film industryites Nina (Marie Trintignant) and the philandering Alphonse (Miki Manojlovic); and Ada’s neurotic friend Emma (Elsa Zylberstein), a compulsive shopper.
Using short, sketch-like scenes, voiceover thoughts by the characters and devices like Ada’s housewarming party, the movie builds a lightly humorous but dramatically static portrait of a group of Parisians who, in various ways, are lying either to one another or to themselves. Catalyst to the action is Lise (Romane Bohringer), an introverted weirdo who’s taken on at Rene’s fashion house and soon makes Ada feel threatened.
The script by Dugowson and Peter Chase (who also doubles as composer) falls over itself to keep all the characters busy, constructing sexual alliances, emotional crises and even (in the case of Emma) a full-scale, deliberately klutzy song number. But apart from the relationship between Ada and Lise, there’s a forced feel to all the bonhomie and spatting, and not enough depth of observation to hold the attention. Final half-hour, in which the principals vacation together and later reassemble inParis, is heavy sledding.
In a variety of floppy hats, and playing easily in French (with a few English asides), Bonham Carter sets a tone of kooky comedy that isn’t pursued by most of the cast, hostages to the rocky script and Dugowson’s uncertain direction. The dry Trintignant and extrovert Manojlovic inject some welcome comedy, but other players are variable, with Zylberstein (who co-starred with Bohringer in “Mina Tannenbaum”) noticeably groping for her character. Technically, the film is always good-looking.