The words “War of the Roses” take on a lighter meaning in “The Rose Maker,” a sweet, gently scented French diversion that is likely to teach you far more than you already knew about hybridizing flowers, even if it doesn’t have a whole lot else to say. Following veteran rose farmer Eve Vernet as she attempts to keep her family business afloat in the face of soulless corporate competition — even if it entails a little botanical skulduggery — Pierre Pinaud’s short but unhurried film benefits immensely from the warmly flinty presence of Catherine Frot (“Marguerite”) in the lead, lending a sense of purpose and personality to a character without much color on the page.
Outside her performance, “The Rose Maker” is short on texture and shading, except when it comes to the spectacular multi-hued roses bred by Eve, and caressed by DP Guillaume Deffontaines’ camera with dewy reverence. Pinaud and Fadette Rouard’s screenplay (written with contributions from, among others, “Cycling with Molière” director Philippe Le Guay) ambles cheerfully through multiple genre pivots — a caper comedy one minute, a sentimental family drama the next — without ever quite filling in the backstories of its characters, or the emotional ties that bind them. Still, such shortcomings are unlikely to prevent this easygoing Music Box release from connecting with a mellow arthouse audience as it hits U.S. theaters, having already been a modest box office success on home turf.
Not that commercial returns are of much interest to single sixtysomething Eve, who maintains the rose farm she inherited from her father with staunch pride, even as she keeps losing clients to flashier corporate growers like Lamarzelle (Vincent Dedienne), a smooth operator who admits he has more of a head for figures than flowers. Even as her long-suffering assistant Vera (Olivia Côte) struggles to balance the books, Eve stubbornly refuses Lamarzelle’s repeated offers to buy her out. She’d rather go bust, she says, than sell her father’s name. How sympathetic viewers are to her stand may depend on the strength of their own anti-capitalist convictions: Lamarzelle is drawn as slick and pragmatic, though not overtly villainous, while Eve’s defiance risks the livelihood of others but herself.
Those include the trio of ex-convicts that Vera hires, to Eve’s consternation, as part of a criminal rehabilitation scheme: middle-aged Samir (Fatsah Bouyahmed), meek Nadege (Marie Petiot) and young tough Fred (rapper-actor Melan Omerta), whose tattooed, thuggish exterior belies (surprise, surprise) a soft, sensitive center, as well as a prodigious nose for olfactory specifics. Initially aghast, haughty Eve comes to realize that Fred’s thieving skills could just land her the prized, heavily guarded Lamarzelle rose she needs for her latest planned hybrid: Cue a sharp, amusing shift into full heist-movie mode, only for this walk on the wild side to peter out, without consequence, with an hour left to go.
After all, when “The Rose Maker” begins with Eve losing a prestigious award to Lamarzelle at an annual rose-growers’ convention, we know exactly how it’s going to end: Turns out Pinaud wants to get there by honest means, with success ultimately coming from Eve taking some hits and learning to collaborate. Suitably thorny but with gradually unfurling layers of wit and vulnerability, Frot’s performance makes this trajectory convincing, even as the film’s shaping and pacing go a little off-track; she has a pleasing foil, too, in Omerta’s appealing, gold-hearted gangster.
Yet while Fred gets a secondary narrative involving making peace with his estranged parents, Eve remains a strangely surface-level protagonist. We never learn much about her personal history, beyond her devotion to her father’s memory: One wonders, at a certain point, if anyone has ever given her flowers, as she spends her life laboring to provide them for others. “I want some red roses for a blue lady,” Dean Martin croons over the opening credits, hinting at romantic inclinations that “The Rose Maker” never leans into. Eve, not especially blue, seems happily wedded to the soil.