04/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Review of Shall We Kiss?

(Un Baiser s'il Vous Plait)

Written and directed by Emmanuel Mouret

Rating: 2 stars

Shall We Kiss begins where most romantic comedies invariably end up: the chance meeting of man and woman. Émilie (Julie Gayet) is traveling to Nantes on business when she stops Gabriel (Michaël Cohen) on the street to ask him for directions. Obviously struck by her, Gabriel offers to give her a lift. The opening is instantly alluring, like each character's experience of the other, both despite and because of its abruptness. Unfortunately, this kicky lead off belies the regrettably unadventurous film that follows.

Needless to say, Gabriel's lift turns into a date, and they spend an enchanting evening together. The film skips that part though and cuts directly to the seat of Gabriel's car after he has brought Émilie back to her hotel; Gabriel leans in for a kiss, or "one last memory," as he calls it, but Émilie rejects him. She denies his advance not because it would be immoral (they are both already committed), but because she knows a kiss cannot be without consequence: meaning, as we eventually find out, that it could spoil their pre-existing relationships (as if going out on dates with random strangers while away on business is perfectly harmless). It takes some wheedling, but Gabriel eventually gets her to tell him how she came to know this.

It turns out that all this Émilie/Gabriel business is just the preamble to the real intrigue. Émilie tells the story of how Judith, a young married woman, comes to kiss her best-friend Nicolas, and the unanticipated effects of that kiss. This story is the story of Shall We Kiss.

After some prosaic character exposition from Émilie-the-narrator (a device which is continually utilized in order to whitewash the fact that the characters themselves have almost no personality), we have Nicolas, played by writer-director-actor Emmanuel Mouret, coming to Judith (Virginie Ledoyen) with a problem -- a tradition in their relationship, so Émilie tells us. This particular problem, though, is a bit more embarrassing than the usual lot. It seems Nicolas is suffering from what he calls "a lack of physical affection," an affliction which he has had to live with ever since he and his girlfriend amicably split a little while ago. Oh Nicolas, how the heavens weep.

By now it's obvious Nicolas is looking to hump his friendship with Judith into dust, but Judith is a bit obtuse, so he'll have to lob a few more euphemisms at her before she starts to catch on. It's possible that Judith is merely feigning naiveté here, but there is no way to know for certain, and even if there were it wouldn't make the scene any less dead. So the clumsy dance carries on, and Nicolas continues to limp-wristedly beat around the bush; however, no matter how many circumlocutions collapse out of Mouret's mouth he never is able to evoke the diffidence of the indie-film milquetoast that he strives for.

This sort of pleonasm is the signature of Shall We Kiss, but there is no charm to this excess, and it feels almost indecent to watch something so haplessly try for a high quirk cache. Judith and Nicolas speak instead of displaying their emotions, and it propels the film like a puttering engine in a car without tires. Had these drawn-out orations been restricted to Émilie, then it would have been one thing, but the principle characters vie for the role of narrator when they speak. Watching these two in the throes of passion is like watching two soccer balls leaking air next to each other.

Eventually they do the deed, which we don't see, and the two try and go back to life as usual afterwards, which of course they cannot. Presumably, it's because they have fallen in love, but you have to wait for the film to tell you as much (which it does), otherwise you would have no way of knowing it. They reconvene and try to disprove their feelings by giving it another go. They try one time while attempting their worst and another while attempting their best. This cartoon-logic isn't cute; it's silly, and somewhere in the background there are two people being cheated on.

The two do deliberate over whether or not they should continue their affair, but nothing beyond a mere admission of decadence. Not to mention the fact that these moments seem even more forced than the rest since they usually occur where a love scene ought to be. What's even worse, though, is that they write their transgressions off with platitudes. Perhaps if their attraction actually appeared irresistible then trite sentiments like "before a kiss is given, no one knows if it is going to be big or small," or "when you least expect it, you fall in love," could be transformed into justifiable reasons to be unfaithful, but without that materialization these are just excuses.

Moreover, if there had been some depth to Judith and Nicolas' reflection, then they wouldn't come off as so despicable (I don't think they are intended to be), but all we get are graceless announcements without any further investigation into the reaches of their shame. There is, however, one scene where Judith actually makes a heartfelt self-condemnation to her husband, but it's immediately ruined by the use of an absurd twist of camera-irony where he's revealed to have been in another room.

The film purports to be an investigation into the genesis and consequences of attraction, using the various dimensions of a seemingly uncomplicated action, a kiss, as its probe. Simply put, a tireless subject and a banal mechanism, but nothing that would preclude innovation or inspiration. In fact, before becoming too ludicrous, Shall We Kiss manages to frame courtship in a way that is briefly intriguing, if only for its coldness. Flirtation and affection are conceived in a pallor of exchange where anything and everything is valued against the standard of a kiss -- seemingly the only thing with any inherent value -- and sexual pleasure is only found in the other's satisfaction, or in the reconciliation of a deficit.

By boring out the living core of the love-relationship, whether Mouret meant to or not, he manages to isolate the politics of love rather than the fire. For example, the final act in the story of Judith and Nicolas is them trying to arrange it so Claudio (Stefano Accorsi), Judith's husband, falls in love with Nicolas' ex; they do this not just out of cowardice, but primarily out of a perverse sense of duty to Claudio. The problem, though, is that the film never goes any deeper into this. If we are supposed to draw pathos out of the rigidity of this structure, then the failure of this plan ought to have destroyed Judith, and if she is not operating out of love, but out of obligation, then her love for Nicolas should be no solace for her betrayal of Claudio.

Shall We Kiss fails because it is an absolutely unmoving love story, and the film's successes are of little concern. Films fail all the time, though, and a failed film is not necessarily a bad film. What is significant is why a film fails and how much of the film remains unspoiled by that failure. Shall We Kiss fails because it never justifies its own sacrifices. When you give up naturalism so completely for didacticism you forgo compelling characters and an interesting plot, which obliges you to compensate with substance. And since the bindings of love are forever less than love itself, a far more thoughtful analysis of their influence is needed to recoup what Mouret forfeits for their sake.

There isn't much left standing after Shall We Kiss is over. The couple of exceptions being some surprisingly good acting (all things considered) and a single formulation on affection that actually has some pith to it ("mutual attraction without mutual consent"). The only other survivor of Shall We Kiss's dissipation is a vapid and unexplored moral. After all, a kiss can't have too much consequence if everyone ends up just fine, which they do.

Mouret's lack of inquiry into his own postulation makes him complacent, and it makes Shall We Kiss tedious. This is not just a shame, but also an offense. The film isn't wooden to allow depth, but wooden to seem deep. Mouret admits as much with all his diversions; he tries to seduce us with Schubert and confuse us with camera angles, but no amount of shellacking can give Shall We Kiss the profundity he never wrote into it.

I have no doubt that such maneuvers will work on many viewers, because, like filmmakers, the audience is much more satisfied with the pretense of thought than the real thing. Shall We Kiss is not an atrocious film, despite all I've said; it's a pretentious film, and it panders to the worst brand of filmgoer: the art-house idiot. The art-house idiot enjoys films that make him feel good, while at the same time considering himself above those who like "feel-good" movies; the films that make the art-house idiot feel good are films that make him feel smart, and the films that make him feel smart are films that want to feel good and smart themselves. The art-house idiot is not happy because he's getting something difficult to get, he's happy because he's getting the only thing these films have to give: self-satisfaction.