A perfectly charmant way to, as the song has it, forget about your worries and your strife for 100 airy minutes, writer-director Erwan le Duc’s “The Bare Necessity” is a breezy little sweetheart of a debut, that threatens to give the rather ominous description “quirky French romantic comedy” a good name. In its dappled countryside sunlight, even the most ostensibly twee elements — a bumbling local police force; a nudist colony; a historical reenactment society; an eccentric rural family with a matriarch whose radio show is dedicated to the breathy discussion of, what else, l’amour — are treated with an amiably deadpan affection that is infectious without ever becoming ingratiating.
“Love Is Real” is the title of the radio phone-in hosted by Thérèse Perdrix (Fanny Ardant) during which she offers callers husky words of advice and encouragement in pursuing their various romantic follies. She is unaware, however, that the show is not exactly popular and most of the calls come from one or other of her two adult sons: Juju (Nicolaus Maury), a socially maladroit oligochaeteologist (earthworm expert) whose wife left him to raise their daughter Marion (Patience Munchenbach) by himself; and Pierrot (Swann Arlaud), the practically-minded but laid-back local police captain of this sleepy Vosges village.
All five Perdrixes (French for “partridge”) live together in the one pear tree: a small, comfy, if slightly worn-down house, with apparently only one bathroom, and a living room table over which hangs a portrait of their deceased father, still the love of Thérèse’s life. Her ongoing mournful widowhood does not stop her bedding a succession of random men, however: “I was robbed of the man I loved, so I decided to have them all,” she declares with an insouciant later-life sexiness that is, quite frankly, #goals.
Pierrot is the one who holds the family together, a role he also fills in the small police station he presides over, and into which, one day, marches Juliette (Maud Wyler) to report her car stolen by an entirely naked woman. Juliette, with her pugnacious jaw and odd, penetrating glare, is most upset by the loss of a lifetime’s worth of memoirs noted down in a couple of hundred notebooks stashed in the car, but Pierrot remains laconically pessimistic about the chances of their recovery. Cupid’s arrow may have been nocked in its bow, but it hasn’t been shot just yet: He is mostly gently amused by Juliette’s bristling impatience.
But when she shows up later on his doorstep and invites herself to dinner with his family, his amusement expands into a kind of dazzled attraction to this strange, abrasive, undiplomatic creature. Arlaud, a star in the ascendant after eyecatching turns in “The Anarchists,” “A Woman’s Life,” and “Bloody Milk” is simply delightful as the suddenly lovestruck but unusually gentle and careful Pierrot. And Wyler is a perfect foil inhabiting Juliette’s ’70s-style natural beauty and determined air of wilful, acerbic independence to make her an unusually vivid and uncompromised heroine. In fact, if the whole film were simply this perfectly mismatched pair gradually growing more aware of each other, it would probably be enough.
But this being a comedy as much as a love story, there are a plethora of subplots and side characters, some of which work better than others. The colony of “revolutionary nudists” is a slightly strained invention, existing mostly, it seems, to give DP Alexis Kavyrchine’s pretty, windchime-mellow photography its more absurdist tableaux. The same could almost be said of the local clans of historical reenactors who have gathered to restage a nearby WWII battle but mostly to drive around in an antique tank, unconvincingly lost in this one-horse town. But that storyline pays off at least in a sweet backdrop to Pierrot and Juliette’s first tryst, in which men pretend-fire their guns and pretend-stagger around wounded in the background while bombastic classical music plays (several pieces of which are well incorporated into Julie Roué’s versatile, plangent score). Love is a battlefield, we’re told, and it’s nice that the fallen soldiers on this one get to slap each other on the backs afterwards and go for drinks.
The more serious subplot — Juju and Marion’s strained relationship — absorbs some of the momentum when they get trapped in a crevice. But in time even they learn the film’s central, kindly, almost subversively counterintuitive lesson about love and letting go. And that perhaps is the very best of “The Bare Necessity” — the unusual assertion that loving someone does not give you any claim over them. It’s this bittersweet wisdom that makes the central couple so inherently worth rooting for: Even if we might wish the climactic metaphorical dash-to-the-airport happened the other way around, they each prove worthy precisely because they are so refreshingly reluctant to impose on the other’s lives. Juliette’s hard edges are never sanded down, and Pierrot takes responsibility for his own happiness by abdicating his responsibility for everyone else’s. While the arthouse romantic comedy threatens to become as formulaic as its mainstream counterpart, and “The Bare Necessity” in no way reinvents the wheel of oddball characters finding love in unexpected places, here Le Duc’s sharp, winning script and the droll, angular performances let us look out at familiar landscapes as though they’re dipped in fresh colors, as one does under the influence of new love.