A Belgian free spirit recalls a winsome cross-cultural romance with her Japanese French-language student in “Tokyo Fiancee,” a charming if sometimes too-cute-for-its-own-good free adaptation of prolific author Amelie Nothomb’s semi-autobiographical novel. Working on multiple levels, Belgian helmer Stefan Liberski’s film is also a coming-of-age story, a portrait of the artist as a young woman who grows to understand what she wants and what is most important. Mixing playfulness and intellect, the whimsical pic should be embraced in French-speaking countries, and will receive plenty of fest love elsewhere.
Although Nothomb is a household name in French-speaking Europe, with 16 titles to her credit, this is only the second adaptation of her work, following Alain Corneau’s “Fear and Trembling” (2003). Both books are set in 1990 (the events in “Tokyo Fiancee” slightly precede and overlap with those in “Fear and Trembling”), but helmer-writer Liberski increases the film’s poignancy by setting it roughly two decades later, in the months leading up to the Fukushima disaster in 2011.
Quirkily costumed to look like a cross between the real-life Nothomb and cinema’s Amelie Poulain, gamine Pauline Etienne plays Amelie, who was born in Japan and lived there until she was 5. She returns to Japan at the age of 20 because, as her older, wiser self states in voiceover, more than anything, she wanted to be Japanese. This wry, reflective narration runs from beginning to end, providing another perspective on the action.
We see Tokyo through Amelie’s eyes, with an emphasis on its colorful Hello Kitty-type oddities. Hoping to support herself by giving private French lessons, she winds up with only one student, the handsome Rinri (Taichi Inoue). Complications, misunderstandings and double meanings in both French and Japanese provide humor and fodder for thought throughout the film. Rinri is the scion of a wealthy but peculiar family, and Amelie’s suspicion that Rinri’s high-end jeweler father might also be a yakuza becomes a running joke. Liberski also gets plenty of comic mileage from the unusual and high-tech gadgets found in Rinri’s family’s ultra-modern home, a la Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.”
Even as Amelie and Rinri act upon their mutual attraction, it’s apparent that their feelings are colored by the romantic notions each one entertains about the other’s culture. Liberski neatly visualizes Amelie’s reflections on their relationship with ironic, colorful and highly theatrical tableaux that play with notions of Orientalism and exoticism. In perhaps the funniest scene, Rinri, also an accomplished chef, prepares a dinner and invites the shy guys from his secret Francophile society to meet Amelie; she takes on the role of geisha, discoursing on the hundreds of types of Belgian beer.
As Amelie struggles to find her voice as a writer, she realizes how important it is to maintain her independence; she cares for Rinri, but realizes that she’s using their relationship as a means to better understand Japan and the Japanese. The explosion at Fukishima (which also reps the ultimate in Liberski’s exploration of high tech vs. nature in Japan) serves as a deus ex machine of sorts. Amelie doesn’t have to make decisions or hurt feelings; her departure is forced upon her.
The dimpled Etienne is a winning presence as Amelie, even if her goofy ensembles make her stick out like a sore thumb, and she displays a nice chemistry with the reserved but caring Inoue. The attractive widescreen lensing by Hichame Alaouie finds perfect counterpoints between the many artficial distractions of the city, and the peace and quiet to be found in nature. But like Amelie’s wardrobe, the overdone jauntiness of the score by the helmer’s brother, Casimir Liberski, becomes cloying.