A handsome artisan and amateur dancer from the French sticks finds his body virtually glued to that of a haughty Parisian ballet teacher in “Hand in Hand,” a contempo, dance-infused variation on the Grimm Brothers’ tale of the golden goose. This third feature from actress-helmer Valerie Donzelli (“Declaration of War”) takes some risks in telling a pleasingly offbeat, melodramatic story, and while the screenplay is a bit of a mess, there’s still enough here to satisfy arthouse patrons in international niche rollouts. Dec. 19 Gallic release will also benefit from the star power of comedian Valerie Lemercier in the lead.
“Hand in Hand” is more along the lines of Donzelli’s first film as a director, the romantic comedy “Queen of Hearts,” than her runaway Cannes hit, “Declaration of War,” about a couple whose child has a potentially fatal tumor, even though one of the supporting characters here also faces a deadly disease in one of the film’s least satisfactory subplots.
The main story focuses on Joachim (co-writer and Donzelli muse Jeremie Elkaim), a skateboard and dance enthusiast who works as a craftsman in a village in northeastern France. He still lives with his sister (Donzelli), though she’s married with kids. During a work appointment at the Paris Opera, Joachim kisses a woman out of the blue: Helene (Lemercier), a strict professor at the Opera ballet school. As in a fairy tale, their kiss has a magical consequence: They can’t move very far from one another and have to mimic each other’s movements.
Helmer Donzelli and choreographer Fabrice Ramalingom have some slapstick-like fun with these constraints, and there’s an inspired bit in which someone asks one of the duo to leave, which proves impossible. As a result, Joachim is forced to stay by Helene’s side at all times, down to sleeping in the same bed, much to the chagrin of Helene’s companion, Constance (Beatrice de Stael, “Queen of Hearts”).
“Hand in Hand” is clearly a tale of two bodies that can’t exist without each other — a potent physical metaphor for true love. But the screenplay (by Donzelli, Elkaim and Gilles Marchand) dilutes its full romantic potential by throwing in too many underdeveloped subplots and relaxing the tight constraints of its magical conceit too soon for it to be credible even in its fairy-tale framework. As a result, the rushed New York-set payoff feels just odd instead of earned.
Elkaim is mightily appealing in the lead, unafraid to look ridiculous in his tight dancing pants and especially moving in a sign-language solo routine Joachim has supposedly made up (actually a piece of choreography by the late Pina Bausch featured in Chantal Akerman’s 1983 Bausch docu). Opposite him, Lemercier is convincingly uptight and dowdy, while Donzelli is also solid, though her role is too small to really impact the main story, yet too big for just a colorful supporting turn.
Compared with the somewhat rough-and-tumble quality of the director’s previous films, the tech package here, led by regular d.p. Sebastien Buchmann’s supple lensing, is more polished. Philippe Barassat occasionally provides superfluous v.o. narration.