A colorful, effervescent and more-than-slightly insane French comedy, actor-director Artus de Penguern’s “Sex, Lies and Surgery” pays homage to and cheerfully spoofs American medical TV dramas, from “General Hospital” to “ER.” With a farce-inspired story that includes everything from ricocheting bullets and alternative anesthesia methods to Canuck brown bears and plastic-surgery how-to handbooks, this is the kind of film where the plot keeps thickening until the gleefully cliched characters actually become affecting in their manic search for storybook happiness. Fests looking for off-kilter French fare have found their match.
Though the film is entirely in French, all the characters have English-sounding names, and the labels of medical products and signage (except for one egregious signpost in a zoo) are also in English, creating the impression of a U.S. TV series dubbed for Gallic viewers. The exact location of the “Clinic of Love” of the French title is deliberately left unclear.
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Gentle but timid John Marshal (de Penguern) is the elder brother of handsome and outgoing ladies man Michael (Bruno Salomone). Both are surgeons at the family-run hospital of their ailing father, widower David (Michel Aumont), who, for reasons initially unclear, hates Stork (Vernon Dobtcheff), the head of a gigantic medical corporation trying to buy the clinic.
While Stork tries to intimidate the gullible Michael after David goes into a coma, a comely and rather naive new surgical-ward employee, Priscilla Stevens (Helena Noguerra), catches John’s eye. But before he works up the courage to make a move, she’s married Michael. Complicating things further is the arrival of a conniving nurse/dominatrix, the appropriately monikered Samantha Bitch (a hilarious, steely-eyed Natacha Lindinger).
With hospital-set series rife with stereotypical characters and cliched storylines, it takes de Penguern, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gabor Rassov and Jerome L’Hotsky, little effort to push every situation to its logical extreme, turning material that’s normally played straight into a mix of screwball comedy, farce and stone-faced absurdity. By the time the heartbroken John finds himself in self-imposed exile in Canada, where he befriends a bear after a scene that tips its hat to Chaplin’s “Gold Rush,” it feels entirely natural for John and the beast to sit down together at a campfire.
Though it might be relatively easy to milk inherently ridiculous scenes for laughs, the film stands out because, as in the work of Chaplin, the lampooning and slapstick might be unrealistic (if entertaining), but audiences are nevertheless emotionally invested in its love story — or, as is the case here, love stories.
The televised hospitalization of J.Lo-like pop sensation Jennifer Gomez (Sofia Essaidi) kicks off the pic’s dazzling finale, as Gomez is operated on twice — a life-threatening operation, then a life-giving one — in an elevator stuck between two floors, with a TV crew filming everything through the escape hatch of the elevator cage. This calamitous event leads to a series of amorous confessions for the entire cast that, while strictly following the template of a stage farce, feels genuinely deserved for the characters.
Thesping is on the money down to the smallest supporting role, and modeled on the broad acting style of soaps, with closeups of long, lingering glances and widescreen-wide smiles. Craft contributions are vibrant, with sharp editing, colorful production design and a score that, like the rest of the film, walks a fine line between homage and parody.