Why make a drawing room comedy when hardly anyone even knows what a drawing room is anymore? Novelist, playwright and sophomore director Amanda Sthers’ old-fashioned, featherweight concoction “Madame” struggles to answer this basic question as it barrels awkwardly through its 91 contrivance-laden minutes trying hard not to bump into the ormolu furniture or knock over any of the priceless ornaments. The starry cast, including Toni Collette, Harvey Keitel, Rossy de Palma, Michael Smiley and Tom Hughes (Prince Albert in TV series “Victoria”) have a fine old time flitting around uppercrust Paris locations in designer duds, sighing over the relatable tragedy that is having to sell one’s treasured Caravaggio. But with writing that’s nowhere near as sharp as the tailoring, and which adorns a trite Cinderella story that stuffs the fabulously unconventional De Palma into a stiflingly conventional corset, “Madame” is less a baroque masterpiece than a subpar reproduction in a gaudy frame.
Among many thin stereotypes, grasping trophy wife Anne is maybe the thinnest, but at least a toned and extremely kempt Collette gets to have some fun playing her. Anne is a parvenu American expat ensconced in a palatial Parisian apartment and a passionless marriage to Bob (Keitel) a super-rich something-or-other with an art collection and a grown-up son, Steven (Hughes), from a previous marriage. She keeps herself busy applying face cream, contemplating an affair, barking orders at a fleet of servants headed by faithful retainer Maria (de Palma) and planning elaborate social events attended by politicians and captains of industry. She appears to have wholly forgotten her own lowly origins as Bob’s erstwhile golf instructor.
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Or perhaps not: Anne’s suppressed arriviste insecurity may be the reason she’s so resistant to the idea of anyone else getting a leg up the social ladder. When the unexpected arrival of the irritatingly louche Steven threatens the potential disaster of 13 for dinner (mercy!), she reaches for the most obvious solution — forcing a tremblingly reluctant Maria to dress up as a mysterious Spanish aristocrat to make the guest list an acceptable 14. But Countess Fakename’s down-to-earth charms make her the life of the party, much to Anne’s stink-eyed chagrin. In particular, Maria connects with visiting art dealer David (Michael Smiley). Soon the formerly downtrodden maid is filching dresses from her mistress’ closet to maintain the illusion of incognito nobility, and sneaking out, replete with a newfound sense of self-worth, to canoodle with her rich-guy beau.
There are passing pleasures to be had: Régis Blondeau’s elegant, honeyed photography catches all the romantic flounce and flair of the scrumptious locations and costumes. Collette delivers her dialogue with such clipped acidity that it has the cadence of biting satire, if not the actual content. Ben Wheatley regular Smiley makes a surprisingly debonair, if not wholly trustworthy, love interest. And Almodovar muse de Palma is always a treat to watch, even when she so grossly overmatches her blossoming-wallflower character.
In fact she’s so distinctive, with her Picasso features and witchy charisma that she skews the film in much more interesting directions than Sthers’ screenplay has mandated. At the very least, she deserves a dramatic climax, wreathed in fire that belches from the windows of a Gothic mansion or something, not the drippy farewell in polka dots she gets here. But then, all of “Madame,” from its timid social-mobility plotline to its Downton-era idea of class hierarchy to its upstairs-downstairs romance, feels like a period piece dressed up as a contemporary comedy. And like the earthy Maria’s noblewoman alter ego, it’s a disguise that never quite convinces.