Alice Lantins (Virginie Efira) is a 38 year old magazine editor who decides to reinvent herself into predatory cougar in order to get ahead.
FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL: This is a cougar comedy and it’s a real pussy cat.
It’s fluffy. It’s sweet. It whips by in no time. There were moments where I thought its tiny satirical claws might even leave a scratch. Instead it merely wants to curl in the lap and get a pat for being what it is. I was left aghast and sort of admiring of its agility to manoeuvre around the treacherous obstacles of gender politics. Finally it escapes into a happy ending where such thoughts have only nuisance value.
If you have a mind for such things (and I confess, I do) you might want to read the plot as a piss-take of those patroniSing glossy fashion mag self-help columns designed to bring comfort and clues to the thirty-something career woman ‘bewildered’ by too many choices. If you think that sounds like a soft-target for a satire, it is, and I don’t think director David Moreau has the necessary meanness for such a project. He loves the gloss and the bling of the movie's setting – Paris publishing, its fashion gurus, its cat walks and parties - and the slick look of shiny surfaces and perfectly appointed bourgeois luxe apartments. Still, in the best tradition of the rom-com there is emotional cruelty here. Indeed the whole point of the story is about users and losers, where selecting the right partner is a career move and true romantics are left alone with only rumours of love.
Refreshingly it’s a femme centred movie. The hero is Alice Lantins (Virginie Efira), single mum and fashion editor of something called Rebelle a fictional Vogue-ish title aimed at the hip, the moneyed, and the aspirational, in addition to the tirelessly vacuous. Closing up fast on forty Alice has admirable assets necessary for such a gig; she’s a serious perfectionist who doesn’t play the fool or is prepared to suffer them with anything approaching a sense of humour. Consequently the staff keep their distance and are left with no need to wonder why such an uptight, airless grump remains dateless. Alice has her faced smashed against the glass ceiling when her boss Vincent (Gilles Cohen) declares she is not quite hip enough for editor in chief. Instead he favours Lise (Amelie Glenn), a twentysomething, for the top job, who can count amongst her virtues, aside from her youth, experience as a pole dancer, an obsession with sex and polymorphous perversity and a fast twitter finger.
The script by Moreau, Amro Hamzawi and Efira provides a solution for Alice and her career dilemma in the form of 19-year-old Balthazar (Pierre Niney), who studies urban planning at uni and must suffer the indignity of his dad – the brilliant Charles Berling – dating one his school pals.
Custom and practice dictates a ‘meet-cute’ for the central couple in any rom-com; usually it’s a close social encounter of the awkward kind, a thing of mixed messages and dashed hopes that leads to romantic pursuit. Here it’s an upgrade to first class, a rough flight and a missing gadget (this movie is nothing but image/tech savvy).
After sharing a flight to Paris Balthazar discovers on landing that Alice has left behind her flash drive. On the trip they held hands, which was more a matter of turbulence than bonding. He is left tingling. She is philosophical. Later Balthazar contrives an impromptu date. She gets her flash drive and he gets a knock back. But in this world no one is safe from the social network. Snaps of Alice are posted online in what looks like an ‘intimate’ moment with Balthazar accompanied by much ‘mystery toy boy’ speculation. Vincent congratulates the newly emboldened Alice on her audacity.
Alas, Alice becomes a player once more and makes herself over as a cougar - a matter of too-tight short skirt, ample décolletage, and a flick hairdo - while she mimes a lusty pursuit of skinny, awkward Balthazar whose bony face and puppy eyes shriek romantic dead-meat; even if he knows a thing or three about emotional courage, especially when cornered. (Meanwhile Alice somewhat gleefully enjoys the fall from grace of her younger rival which suggests that the film has a not quite inclusive attitude to all careerists…)
Balthazar falls hard. Alice seems to be in it for the sex (indeed her orgiastic cries of delight echoing up and down a posh Paris street is one of the movies funnier moments).
Soon Alice gets an attack of conscience and Balthazar is dumped. Soon Alice wonders what she’s missing (besides, you know, the said cries of delight). Balthazar retires hurt. That’s not quite the half way point so don’t think I’m giving much away.
The whole thing bounces so fast from one set piece of confusion to another, you hardly notice how perfectly convenient they are, till it's all over. But the best gags are found not in the main action but in the film's large cast of sub-plots. They seem to me to be pointed vignettes of do’s-and-don’t’s dating columns. Here are the digital generation with their open-minded emotional honesty, middle-aged swingers dating younger women and the women seeking that cliché of the ‘perfect’ partner. I particularly like the running joke where Alice’s sister Elizabeth (Camille Japy) is trying to hook her up with the latter’s gynecologist.
There is a promise in the French title of the film, 20 ans d'ecart, which roughly translates as ‘20-year difference’. For all its fun and the not to be underestimated charm of its wonderful leads, what’s odd about the film is that it’s not quite true to that premise. That is, there’s really not much here other than in the most superficial way about how age and age difference plays a part in romance. What gets between the lovers isn’t maturity and experience, its ambition. Which is to say this movie isn’t a liberated as it pretends to be.