The doctors of Axelle Ropert’s “Miss and the Doctors” are a pair of bachelor physicians who immerse themselves in their family practice at the expense of just about anything else. But that all changes when a radiant single mother tumbles into their lives and stokes their dormant passions. There isn’t much more than that to Ropert’s sophomore directing effort (after 2009’s “The Wolberg Family”), and yet this modest, warmly enveloping film is so rich in recognizably human characters and the lyricism of everyday life that it never seems to be missing anything. A natural for Francophile fests and new-director showcases, this charming sleeper (which opened in France last fall) also merits the attention of discerning offshore arthouse distribs.
Ropert, who is one of the young, independent French filmmakers loosely allied with the actor-director Serge Bozon (and who wrote Bozon’s films “Tip Top” and “La France”), has tremendous gifts of observation, and much of the pleasure of “Miss and the Doctors” comes from the way it brings a very particular, rarely glimpsed corner of Paris to life onscreen. A neighborhood film in the purest sense, “Miss” unfolds in and around the streets of the 13th arrondissement, the old Chinese quarter, crammed with noodle shops and dry cleaners photographed by d.p. Celine Bozon (Serge’s sister) in a radiant neon glow. The people in Ropert’s film give off a glow, too; there is a sense of shared experience, of familiar faces passing each other day after day on the same streets, never venturing too far from home.
That is certainly true of the brothers Pizarnik: Dimitri (Laurent Stocker), a sensitive recovering alcoholic, and Boris (played by the director Cedric Khan), who has the brusque machismo of a failed athlete. Their lives are comfortably intertwined; in addition to the practice they share, they live in apartments directly across a courtyard from each other. Then one night, they pay a house call to preteen Alice (Paula Denis), a diabetic girl who’s been left home alone by her mother, Judith (Louise Bourgoin), who works nights in a nearby bar. When Boris return the next day to follow up, he quickly falls under Judith’s spell — and vice versa. It is not long before Dimitri follows suit, though in his case the attraction is clearly more one-sided.
So jealousy and resentment enter the Pizarnik homestead, with yet more friction to come when Judith’s estranged husband (Jean-Pierre Petit) reappears on the scene, his entrance staged by Ropert as a particularly deft bit of farce. But at every turn, “Miss and the Doctors” steers well clear of the romantic-comedy conventions that would make it obvious who is destined to end up with whom. Rather, this uncommonly wise, grown-up relationship movie charts the complicated entanglements of three people who find each other at a moment in their lives when they had all but given up hope of finding anyone. And even then, life, as it is wont to do, keeps throwing curve balls.
Bourgoin (“The Girl From Monaco,” “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec”) is a radiant vision here, decked out by Ropert (who favors strong primary colors) and costume designer Delphine Capossela in lustrous crimson from head to toe, like a chorus girl in an MGM musical. She plays Judith as a woman who knows she seduces men easily, but who seems weighed down by an inner sadness, a yearning for a deeper, more meaningful bond. But the great surprise of the movie is Kahn, who has only acted twice before — and only once in a leading role (in the 2012 crime drama “Aliyah,” where he was very good). He’s a master of understatement: In his first scene with Bourgoin, his eyes follow her across the room in a way that tells us, almost imperceptibly, he’s hooked. And he uses his large frame skillfully to suggest a man who has always felt more comfortable expressing himself physically than emotionally.
Serge Bozon is very touching in a small role as a friend of the brothers stricken with MS, recoiling with anger and fear at the violent betrayals of his body.
Ropert, who loaded up the soundtrack of her debut feature with a bevy of ’60s-era soul tunes, uses music more sparingly here, but makes fine use of a plaintive original score by composer Benjamin Esdraffo and several needle drops of Tim Hardin’s “How Can We Hang on to a Dream.”