A professional interest in chocolate lubricates the difficult first steps for two romantics suffering from social anxiety disorder in “Romantics Anonymous,” a delicious comedy-romance with a sweet-toothed twist from Gallic director Jean-Pierre Ameris (“Lightweight”). Helmer not only uses his honest take on the protags’ serious affliction as an obvious source of humor but also gently subverts the genre’s basic template, as the biggest obstacle the leads need to overcome lies within themselves rather than in any plot contrivance. Late December release clicked with local auds and has remake potential and Francophile niche appeal.
Pic reteams Belgium’s favorite sad clown, Benoit Poelvoorde (“Coco Before Chanel”), and French thesp Isabelle Carre (“Hideaway”), who earlier worked together on helmer Anne Fontaine’s more straightforward drama “In His Hands.” Here, the duo sparkles in more comic mode, though both roles are again fully inhabited, with helmer Ameris — who, per press notes, himself suffers from panic attacks when social interaction is required — paying particular attention to the thesps’ eyes and body language.
Angelic Angelique Delange (Carre) is a good-natured chocolate maker who’s extremely gifted but too shy to take credit for her work. Through a stroke of luck, she finds a job, but because of her fear of appraisal or — worse! — dismissal, she makes her confections at home and pretends to the outside world she’s just a delivery girl for a gifted chocolate-making hermit. But after the death of the chocolaterie’s owner (Claude Aufaure), the only one in the know about her gifts, she’s out of a job — and it ain’t easy for hermits to enter the job market.
Enter Jean-Rene Van Den Hugde (Poelvoorde), who runs a small chocolate factory that’s on the verge of bankruptcy. He needs to hire a new salesperson to sell his sweets, or close up shop. When Angelique and Jean-Rene’s paths cross, neither suspects the other suffers from the same anxiety attacks every time they need to converse. Angelique is always ready to retreat, while Jean-Rene sweats so profusely he never goes anywhere without a change of freshly ironed shirts.
Each of these emotionally fragile chocolate lovers has a support team that not only fills out the usual romantic-comedy best-friend roles but also allows them to reveal more about their illness (and provides opportunity for humor). Angelique attends group therapy for people affected by the same disorder (hence the original title, which roughly translates as “The Emotionally Challenged Anonymous”), while Jean-Rene sees a shrink (Stephan Wojtowicz) who sets a new task or goal each week (“Invite someone out for dinner,” “Touch someone”).
The clever and consistently witty script, authored by Ameris and Belgian scribe Philippe Blasband (“Irina Palm”), keeps the focus on the human relationships rather than the food. The shots of the chocolate confections made, consumed and sold are more functional than sensual here; Lasse Hallstrom’s “Chocolat” this is not. Strong thesping further consolidates the impression that this is a film about real people with not only real problems, but also a real desire to be together.
Unobtrusive widescreen lensing is serviceable, while Pierre Adenot’s score adds a touch of fairy tale-like lightness. Both thesps also get to sing a song, though only Poelvoorde’s number is cleverly integrated into the story.