In a buoyantly entertaining example of everything old made new again, 81-year-old helmer Alain Resnais has taken a popular 1925 Parisian-style operetta and filmed it in a studio. As perversely daring as it is straightforward, “Not on the Lips” is essentially a musical comedy, the result as effortless as it is thoughtful. Curmudgeons may find the exercise outdated, but talent in the service of better-than-average material never goes out of style. Local auds, cajoled by a classy ad campaign, will probably plant a big juicy kiss on pic and continue to court wickets well into the New Year. Resnais’ reputation and the casting of Audrey Tautou certainly shouldn’t hurt offshore sales; but pic’s delights are evident beyond marketing hooks. Thesps do their own singing in live takes. The period sets are gorgeous. The costumes are magnificent. There’s a nifty happy ending. It’s glamorous, funny, suspenseful, anchored in human nature and profoundly silly all at once.
Resnais is sometimes accused of being too remote and cerebral, but “Lips” is popular entertainment purveyed with taste and class. Unlike, say, “Far From Heaven,” “8 Women” or “Down With Love,” he isn’t out to mock, copy or even overtly re-invent anything. Nary a word has been changed from the original libretto.
Frivolous Parisian socialite Gilberte Valandray (Sabine Azema, aces) is happily wed to wealthy steel magnate Georges Valandray (Pierre Arditi, ditto). Although Gilberte is being pursued by an aging Don Juan named Faradel (Daniel Prevost), and by hunky young penniless artist Charley (Jalil Lespert), Georges has complete trust in his wife’s fidelity. He also declares he would not have considered marrying a widow or a divorcee.
Georges’ theory is that a woman is forever blissfully joined to the man who took her virginity, i.e. her first husband. With such conjugal confidence, he refuses to be jealous.
Vivacious Gilberte has no intention of cheating on Georges: She even sings a song about how a harmless flirtation is way more fun than taking a lover. But she does intend to keep from him the inconvenient fact that she was married once before — while in the U.S., to American businessman Eric Thomson. The six-month union was never certified by French authorities, so the marriage is not legally recognized in Gaul. Only Gilberte’s old-maid sister, Arlette (Isabelle Nanty), is in on the secret.
Gilberte and Georges reconfirm their love in a kitchen duet sung in formal attire behind a veil of vapor from a pot of steaming lobsters. Then the fun begins in earnest as Georges mentions he’s invited to dinner a prospective American business associate — none other than Thomson (Lambert Wilson). Unless Arlette can secure Thomson’s total discretion, Gilberte will be in hotter water than the lobsters.
Making pervasive cliches his own, Wilson is as much of a delight as a Yank as he was as the Frenchman in the “Matrix” sequels. The role requires him to speak and sing in a verbally wacky mix of French and English. As the only trained vocalist in the cast, with a solid concert career under his belt, thesp acquits himself well.
So, too, does the rest of the cast. Tautou is fine as Huguette, a family friend with a crush on Charley who’s helped out by Arlette. Azema, wearing a series of slinky, glittering gowns, is perfect as Gilberte, and she and Arditi, who’ve played couples in previous Resnais pics (most notably, “Smoking/No Smoking”) couldn’t be more comfortable or more quietly inventive.
Third act, set in Faradel’s exotic bachelor pad, is full of close calls and potentially incriminating behavior witnessed by a nosy concierge, Mme. Foin. In a stroke of casting genius, latter is played with deadpan cross-dressing precision by male comic vet Darry Cowl.
Fluffy, beautifully designed pic is peppered with enticing visual touches. The camera sometimes looks down from the ceiling, the protags sometimes address the camera directly and, when visitors to the Valandray’s multi-level manse exit, they literally fade away before reaching the virtual stage “wings.”
Operetta boasts a delightful variety of songs, with witty, insouciant lyrics. Preserving the oomph of a live performance, musical director Bruno Fontaine’s arrangements are chipper, melancholy or jazzy, as required.
Libretto freely mocks avant-garde trends in painting and theater. Such touches — along with a song detailing how Americans are arrogant capitalists, countered by things the French supposedly do better — remain relevant to an almost unnerving degree, nearly 80 years after the fact.