First-time writer-helmer Gilles Mimouni’s “The Apartment” is an enjoyably preposterous, stylishly shot tale of a lovers’ pentagon that excels in sure-footed complexity, fresh and energetic perfs and the sheer pleasure of exuberant filmmaking. If French auds are willing to give disbelief a two-hour time-out, the young director may have a sleeper (with remake potential) on his hands. Whatever the pic’s theatrical fate, it’s guaranteed a long and lucrative tube career, with Mimouni a talent to watch.
Unrelated to Billy Wilder’s classic pic of the same name, Mimouni’s “Apartment” could also be retitled “Parisians Who Love Parisians Who Love Too Much.” Everyone in this movie is madly in love. The impeccably constructed script leaves no detail unexploited without propelling one of the characters further along the road to discovery. A woman’s makeup compact, a white rose, a set of keys, a cafe mirror and a highheeled shoe used in the purest Cinderella fashion — almost all come back as little life-rafts of surprise.
Story is told in a corkscrew fashion, with action spinning from the mysterious present to the explanatory past as characters hurtle toward turning points in their lives. Young and handsome Max (Vincent Cassel), a former hipster-turned-corporate nerd, is about to leave his mousy financee (Sandrine Kiberlain) for a business trip to Tokyo when he overhears the luscious Lisa (Monica Bellucci), who walked out of his life years earlier, arguing in a neighboring phone booth. Max decides to stay in Paris secretly with his shoemaker friend Lucien (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey) while he tracks down his lost beloved.
Max finally finds her art deco wonderland of an apartment, but discovers it inhabited by a suicidal plain Jane (Romane Bohringer) who seems as lovesick as himself. She says her name is Lisa and convinces the hapless Max he’s been on a wild goose chase.
In fact, this new Lisa is a former Montmartre boho named Alice who’s been hopelessly in love with Max since his salad days. A worldclass liar, she engineered the real Lisa’s jilting of Max way back; the fact that Lucien, Max’s best friend, is her smitten b.f. only further complicates her subterfuge. Meanwhile, the real Lisa has her own problems. A homicidal Euro-lizard ex-boyfriend is after her, which is why she stays away from her apartment and lends it to Alice — who is, of course, her best friend.
Both in the past and the present, the plot thickens considerably after this point, but never congeals. As the resolution eventually arrives and the implausible story comes full circle, sentimentalists may be disappointed at Mimouni’s ruthless commitment to symmetry over the demands of the heart.
Cassel, who made a splash as the foul-mouthed lead in Mathieu Kassovitz’s “Hate,” gives further proof of his adaptability. The present Max is an athletic , impulsive dynamo, while Max past is a touching, gangly lad whose heartbreak scene, as played by Cassel, is memorable. Bohringer, as the flaky Alice, brings the requisite screwed-up feeling to the part, and Italian newcomer Bellucci doesn’t let her cover-girl looks get in the way of getting the job done. As Lucien, Ecoffey does a flawless duet with Cassel as old pals since childhood.
Thanks to cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, Paris hasn’t looked this over-the-top romantic in years, a soundstage city of rooftop garrets and warm cafes. We follow Max up and down staircases, dolly in and out of cafes, and have our flashbacks served up bleached of all but the most basic colors. Mimouni also instructed his composer, Peter Chase, to lay on the romantic sap, and isn’t sparing about spreading it around his pic.