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“Liberte, egalite, sexualite” has long been the revised Republican motto of French cinema (though some might throw in “bavard,” or “talky,” for good measure), Antony Cordier’s “Happy Few” proves that Gallic directors are still in the business of exploring these concerns, especially the last. But the helmer’s sophomore effort, about two couples that frequently swap spouses, is essentially an exercise in bourgeois navel (and further downwards) gazing that doesn’t add anything new to the genre. Lovers of middlebrow French relationship dramas and subtitled smut might be happy, but could, indeed, be few. Pic bows locally Sept. 15.

Cordier’s fiction debut, “Cold Showers,” told the story of a working-class teen and judo fanatic who got involved in a three-way with his g.f. and a peer. In that pic, Cordier and regular co-scripter Julie Peyr neatly used the menage-a-trois construction to further build on and reveal the flawed character, still very much in development, of their protag. But in “Happy Few,” there is no lead to identify with. And while the film’s frequent bed-hopping neatly showcases the thesps’ no-problemo attitude toward nudity, it does far too little to further the story or offer psychological insight into any of the characters.

Vincent (Nicolas Duvauchelle) builds websites for a living, and is working on a new Internet presence for jewelry designer Rachel (Marina Fois). The two immediately hit it off and organize a home-cooked meal with their respective other-halves, Teri (Elodie Bouchez), a half-French, half-American former athlete, and Franck (Roschdy Zem), a feng-shui specialist.

Sparks fly in all directions around the dinner table, and the two couples soon settle into a rhythm where they casually swap partners — though, apart from one awkwardly inserted lesbian encounter, things remain heterosexual.

One of the film’s few strong points is the way in which it suggests the casualness and amorality of the foursome’s arrangement, based on shared chemistry and mutual desire — not any type of fundamental problem in either marriage. It is also clear that none of these people are swingers; the partner swapping occurs only within the confines of their very close friendship.

But this strong suit turns soon into a weakness when Cordier and Peyr decide they need conflict to keep their narrative going. Minor bickering about the lack of rules, and self-doubts brought about by comparing partners seem incongruous with the protags’ general laissez-faire attitude. The only concern that rings true is how to hide the unorthodox arrangement from the two couples’ preteen kids, which is hardly enough to sustain interest.

Pic is closely connected to “Cold Showers,” even if it is less accomplished on a narrative level. It again features many scenes of characters playing sports (mainly squash and ping pong), and its wicked sense of humor is better integrated into the flow of the story. Both films also feature an unforced use of the camera and a natural direction of actors.

Unnecessary v.o. from several of the characters adds little but is only sparingly used. And, as in “Showers,” the copious amounts of full-frontal nudity — from three of the leads (minus Zem) — will limit wider sales prospects.

Happy Few

France

  • Production: A Le Pacte release of a Why Not Prods. presentation and production, in association with France 2 Cinema, with participation of Canal Plus, Cinecinema, France Televisions, CNC. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Sebastien K. Lemercier. Directed by Antony Cordier. Screenplay, Cordier, Julie Peyr.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Nicolas Gaurin; editor, Christel Dewynter; music, Frederic Verrieres; production designer, Marie Cheminal; costume designer, Isabelle Pannetier; sound (Dolby SRD/DTS), Cyril Moisson, Stephane Brunclair, Cyril Holtz; assistant director, Valerie Roucher. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 2, 2010. Running time: 104 MIN.
  • With: With: Marina Fois, Elodie Bouchez, Roschdy Zem, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Alexia Stresi, Blanche Gardin. (French, English dialogue)
  • Music By: