With the elaborate ensembler “Men and Women,” Claude Lelouch has gone way beyond most directors’ second looks at flawed works, to an extent more often found in legit theater than in the movies. Pic intelligently, if not seamlessly, combines footage from the first two legs of his projected “Humankind” trilogy — “The Parisians” and the unreleased Part 2 — to create a hybrid that, though far from perfect, could stand a fighting chance of appealing to the helmer’s customary worldwide fan base. Single print world-preemed in Los Angeles’ City of Light, City of Angels fest late last month.
As writer, director and producer of the ambitious HD undertaking, Lelouch met indifferent-to-cruel critical response and only tepid interest from Gallic auds when “The Parisians” (reviewed in Variety Sept. 20, 2004) was released last year. The reaction suggested that Part 2, by then in the can, was already dead in the water. Whether it will be finally released in Gaul remains unclear.
Emphasizing star-crossed and/or unlikely couples, Lelouch creates a vast gallery of characters of all ages and social circumstances, from homeless to filthy rich, to illustrate his perennial enthusiasm for sideshows in the pageant of human behavior.
“Men and Women” brims with Lelouch hallmarks and, unlike “The Parisians,” draws only the occasional wince. Helmer’s confidence in his own instincts can be contagious, and often carries the day, as well as the several positive changes wrought in the new movie.
The twin sisters played by popular thesp Mathilde Seigner occupy a hearty swathe of the new movie; and the role of entrepreneurial restaurateur Gorkini (Michel Leeb) is now greatly expanded. The real-estate antics of a trio of youthful con artists have vanished, as have most of the strained scenes that uncomfortably showed a man well past middle age at the helm.
Pic’s most original held-over component is the late Ticky Holgado as a homeless man who says his name is God and seems to have an inside track on everyone he encounters.
However, there are still two love-’em-or-hate-’em elements here: the music of Francis Lai and the distinctive facial contours of monomonikered thesp Maiwenn, whose character’s ersatz “A Star Is Born” trajectory remains a crucial component of the narrative.
Shaa (Maiwenn), a lanky twentysomething, teams up with street singer Massimo (Massimo Ranieri), an Italian who’s pushing 50. Despite the fact Shaa has a reed-thin voice and no range, a powerful Paris impresario decides to groom her as the next vocal sensation. Provided, that is, she dumps Massimo, who is her sweetheart and soul-mate as well as the other half of the act.
Although fate punishes Shaa for abandoning true love, viewers not born tone-deaf are asked to suspend their disbelief to the breaking-point during the high-profile media blitz and lavish recording sessions that precede her fall.
Instead of Shaa and Massimo, the couple at the pic’s heart are now the identical twins played by Seigner: Anne, who tends bar in the jazz club where Shaa and Massimo get their big break, and Clementine (merely a cipher in “The Parisians”), who’s a live-in servant to Sabine (Arielle Dombasle), a flamboyant actress who lives in a manse outside Paris.
Anne’s boss (Francis Perrin) has the hots for her, but she’s quite taken with Massimo when he’s suffering in his post-Shaa phase. Clementine is involved with the chauffeur, but seems attracted to wealthy Gorkini, whose pizza empire plans to advertise its wares with a commercial modeled on the Last Supper.
Lelouch himself enters the mix as a film director determined to recount the tragic story of Shaa and Massimo. This self-reflexive gambit goes for baroque, taking matters well beyond the material on view in “The Parisians.”
Rock-solid Seigner, who always manages to elevate and render authentic any material thrown her way, gives a wonderful dual perf. Effects work on shots where the sisters must interact is aces.
Although two different cinematographers lit for the HD camera, the melding of their work is impressive. Lelouch’s sheer joy in filling the widescreen frame with close-ups and lively tableaux never falters, even if his command of how far viewers will follow him down melodramatic byways sometimes does.