One fine spring morning, Emilie (Audrey Tautou) receives a love letter. It's beautiful, inspired, but it's also anonymous. She initially throws it into the trash can, before realising that it could be the way to rescue her mother (Nathalie Baye), who has become isolated and alone since the departure of her husband. Without thinking further, she immediately sends the letter on to her. But Emilie doesn't yet know that Jean (Sami Bouajila), her shy employee, is the letter's author.
In the latest comedy for French director Pierre Salavadori (Wild Target; Priceless), hair salon owner Émilie (Audrey Tautou) receives an anonymous love letter. Unimpressed, she tosses it into the bin before having a bright idea. Her mother, Maddy (Nathalie Baye), is in the slough of despond after being dumped by her husband for a younger woman. Why not restore her self-confidence by retyping the letter and sending it to her so she thinks she has a dedicated, unknown admirer. What harm could that possibly do?
Well, obviously a lot, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a film. For a start, Émilie has no idea her secret admirer, Jean (Sami Bouajila), is right under her nose observing everything that’s going on. He’s the handyman she’s hired to do some fittings in the salon, but because of his lower status as a mere workman (and judging from his appearance and Bouajila’s surname, possibly Algerian origins, unremarked in the screenplay), it never occurs to her that he might be the man who’s declared his adoration in florid language. The scene is set.
If the scenario – so perfectly primed for humorous mishaps – seems familiar, it’s because the history of mistaken identity goes back several hundred years; see under 'Shakespeare: the comedies’. Salvadori and writing partner Benoét Graffin give this just enough of a twist to freshen it up.
Graffin also co-wrote Priceless, Salavadori’s last film with Tautou, where she played a heartless gold digger and her role here is often not that much more sympathetic. After coming to prominence via the mega-hit Amelie, Tautou obviously realised the danger of being seen as France’s national sweetheart and is doing a good job of wriggling free of typecasting. As a woman who often appears abrupt and seems to have little concern for others, she manages nonetheless to prove fascinating to watch. Jean and Maddy are the heart and soul of the film and Bouajila and Baye bring all the innocence and vulnerability needed to make their faux relationship work.
At times the film seems overly contrived – you can see the cogs of the narrative clicking into place before you’ve really had the chance to be swept up in its embrace – but eventually I found myself submitting despite my initial reluctance. If Australia could produce romantic comedies with as much craftsmanship in the writing we’d be laughing – and in more ways than one.
Watch 'Beautiful Lies'
Monday 6 September, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies
Tuesday 7 September, 10:15am on SBS World Movies
Wednesday 8 September, 3:00am on SBS World Movies
Now streaming at SBS On Demand
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Director: Pierre Savladori
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Nathalie Baye, Sami Bouajila