Delightful, funny and refreshingly unpredictable, “The Joy of Singing” is a sexy comic caper that brings to mind John Huston’s classic genre-twister “Beat the Devil.” Reaching beyond the more limited ambitions of his previous films (“Grandsons,” “Confusion of Genders”), Ilan Duran Cohen successfully juggles a plethora of neuroses via a baroque plot involving intelligence agents, uranium secrets and singing lessons, and while the convoluted machinations may not bear scrutiny, it’s the characterization that counts. Though the Rome fest made an unlikely launching pad, pic deserves to be a hit at home, with strong potential for arthouses worldwide.
An avalanche of information in the first 15 minutes can feel overwhelming, but auds willing to go with it are soon rewarded. Eve (Evelyne Kirschenbaum) gives voice lessons from her home; one of her students, Constance Muller (Jeanne Balibar), is a recent widow whose husband, Hans, is seen brutally murdered at the start.
Hans was killed by people wanting the uranium secrets (another parallel with “Beat the Devil”) he stored on his USB stick, now missing. French intelligence agents Muriel (Marina Fois) and Philippe (Lorant Deutsch) are instructed by their chief (Dominique Reymond) to infiltrate Eve’s singing lessons and find out if Constance knows anything.
Also enrolled in class is Anna (Caroline Ducey), who may be working for the Russians or Mossad, and hustler Julien (Julien Baumgartner), hired by Constance’s duplicitous sister-in-law, Noemie (Nathalie Richard), who’s in cahoots with radiologist/terrorist Reza (Frederic Karkosian), both of whom are sleeping with Julien.
Sure, it’s overly complicated, but that’s part of pic’s charm once the characters assert their personalities. Age, and the fear of aging, is a key theme: Muriel chooses young lovers to stave off the inevitable, while Philippe is the only character impatiently awaiting the onset of wrinkles.
For a film trading in seemingly cartoonish characters, Duran Cohen succeeds beautifully in investing his story with multidimensional elements that give depth to his madcap plot, co-written with Philippe Lasry in collaboration with Noemie Lvovsky. Chief among pic’s ironies is its recognition that singing before strangers is one of the most intimate acts of exposure. That the helmer can play with this irony among a group of spies, then make it funny with musical choices that include traditional American spirituals sung with French accents, adds to the pleasurable sense of piquant surprise.
In a role tailor-made for Balibar’s breathy, girlish intonations, Constance becomes the soul of the film, capturing the universal desire to break out of life’s restrictions. A climax of sorts, when Constance finally gets to sing her newly written lyrics to the Pretenders’ classic “I’ll Stand By You” (becoming “L’amour est fou”/”Love is crazy”), makes it impossible for viewers not to at least hum along.
Other cast members enjoy their roles equally, and take to their singing with occasionally off-key gusto; Baumgartner is to be commended for tackling Schubert’s “Ungeduld” with such conviction. Duran Cohen’s graduation to widescreen is effortless; occasional handheld lensing feels organic without being noticeable, and regular editor Fabrice Rouaud maintains rhythm without letting the multiplicity of characters weigh down the bounciness.