Georges Feydeau’s door-slamming 1894 farce, “Un Fil a la Patte” (usually translated as “A Fly in the Ointment”), receives fleet screen treatment from vet French helmer Michel Deville in “The Art of Breaking Up.” A fitting grace note to the career of the perpetually underrated Deville — who retires with this, his 32nd feature — pic retains the integrity of the material’s stage origins, while investing it with a flurry of cinematic energy. With a stellar cast and a refreshingly brief running time, pic boasted brisk sales at Berlin’s market and should charm auds at fests and arthouses alike. Gaul opening is set for April 27.
In the circles of Parisian high society, caddish lothario Bois d’Enghein (Charles Berling) is about to wed Viviane Duverger (Sara Forestier), the daughter of a wealthy baroness (Dominique Blanc). Reports of their impending union are all over the morning papers, with the marriage contract due to be signed later that afternoon. There’s only one small hitch: Bois d’Enghein has yet to break the news to his longtime lover, Lucette (Emmanuelle Beart), who happens to be one of Paris’ most celebrated divas. And every time he tries to tell her — well, something manages to get in the way.
That’s the seed of Feydeau’s premise, from which an increasingly thorny set of complications soon sprout. Not least among them is the fact that the Baroness has more than a motherly interest in Bois d’Enghein herself and — as if that weren’t enough — can think of nobody she’d rather have sing at Viviane’s wedding than (you guessed it) Lucette.
But there’s also the strange case of the songwriter Bouzin (scene-stealing Patrick Timsit), who ends up unwittingly pegged by Bois d’Enghein — in a desperate bid to save his own skin — as both Viviane’s intended and Lucette’s paramour. All of which is to say nothing of the dashing, but dim Irrigua (Stanislas Merhar) who also covets Lucette.
As with many classical farces, “The Art of Breaking Up” is a mad flurry of entrances, exits and mistaken identities, in which the intricacies of the narrative are secondary to the speed and precision of their execution. Such pieces are well-suited to the stage, where actors can use the uninterrupted continuity of a live performance to create a crescendo of comic momentum, but often transition awkwardly to the discontinuous, close-up medium of cinema.
But as his contemporary Alain Resnais did in his recent adaptation of Andre Barde’s 1925 operetta “Not On the Lips,” Deville rises to the occasion precisely by celebrating (rather than trying to disguise) the disparate qualities of the two mediums. Armed with a crisp screenplay by his wife and frequent collaborator, Rosalinde, Deville, instead of trying to “open up” the play for film, stays true to Feydeau’s claustrophobic bedroom and drawing-room settings and, within that milieu, finds ingeniously kinetic ways of staging and shooting action.
Working for the first time with cameraman Pierre-William Glenn, Deville deploys a dizzying series of zooms, circular pans and vigorous dolly movements that push viewers through scenes with an unpredictable vigor that perfectly matches the temperaments of the characters. Meanwhile, the cuts of editor Andrea Sedlackova register like a violinist’s elegant staccato plucks.
Further adding to the general air of merriment are a host of note-perfect performances, particularly Berling, in a rare comic turn, suffering every mishap that befalls him with a delicious, slow-burn frustration; Beart, ever so bemused by the madness that surrounds her; and Blanc, in the spirit of Deville himself (who turns 74 next month), acting and feeling anything but her own age.