Sunday, May 28, 2006

Russian Dolls

British cinema-goers will be familiar with the Orange adverts that seem to run before every film in every cinema. For the American among you, Orange are a mobile phone company, and the gimmick is that in every advert, a hapless actor tries to pitch his beloved film to the Orange Film Foundation, who listen politely and then suggest that the film might benefit from some more mobile phones. (Originally, the adverts were intended as "Please switch off your phone" notices, with the tagline "Don't let a mobile phone ruin your movie", but they abandoned that years ago.)

The current one features Sean Astin from Lord of the Rings, who pitches something described as an "epic romantic comedy, set in New York." For ages now, I've wondered what the hell an epic romantic comedy might be.

Well, now I know. Russian Dolls is the sequel to the 2002 film L'Auberge Espanol, which literally means The Spanish Apartment, although that didn't stop international distributors from calling the English language versions such things as Pot Luck and, god help us, Euro Pudding. (Remarkably, for once it was the American distributors who had the sense to stick with the literal name. It loses something in translation anyway, because the title is a French idiom with multiple meanings.) It was a film about a group of students from around Europe attending university in Barcelona, and no, I'd never heard of it either. Mind you, it won a string of awards, so it must have been okay.

Frankly, due to a rare lack of research, I completely failed to notice that Russian Dolls was a sequel until after I'd seen it, which at least proves that it's accessible. It is, technically, a romantic comedy. It qualifies on the grounds that it features romance and comedy prominently. It pretty much ignores all the other established ground rules of the genre. The original film was apparently something of a paean to multicultural Europe, and this is certainly along those lines. Although it's a French film, it takes place in London, Paris and St Petersburg with characters from all three countries, all of whom speak their own language when given the chance - thus resulting in a rare example of a film which will be heavily subtitled in every single market in the world. Even Quebec, because they don't speak Russian there.

I suspect I'm making this sound horrendously worthy. Please be assured that it isn't. It's just not very common to see literally multilingual films, and they tend to leap out at you.

Five years have passed since the first film, which is odd, since it was made only three years earlier. Lead character Xavier (Romain Duris, a sort of French Adam Brody) is now a professional writer in Paris, and theoretically is meant to be writing a novel. In reality, he's banging out hackwork for French TV and ghostwriting celebrity autobiographies. His current assignment is a godawful romantic drama for the Christmas audience with a title that loosely translates as Passionate Love in Venice, and everything we see of it suggests that it's going to suck enormously.

The ramshackle plot has Xavier drifting for much of the film, meeting various women (some of whom only seem to have been included because they were in the first film and their characters had to be shoehorned in somewhere), and generally failing to form any sort of lasting relationship at all. On the one hand, Xavier thinks he's too good to be writing this dross for French TV because he knows it's romanticised nonsense; on the other hand, he's incapable of forming any kind of lasting relationship because his expectations are unrealistic. That's the basic idea.

In unusual defiance of the rules of romantic comedy, the film stubbornly refuses to give us a relationship to actually root for until about halfway through, when Wendy (the English character from the first film) is brought in as his co-writer and we get into a more conventional story about whether Xavier's prepared to let go of his absurdly high expectations and stay with her. You can probably guess the general shape of it from there.

It's a strangely plotted film. The central conceit of comparing Xavier's chaotic lovelife with the contrived romantic drama he's trying to write requires the film to defy the normal rules of romantic comedy, but also means that the first half of the film scatters all over the place in obstinate refusal to play the game. Frankly, clocking in at over two hours long, the film could have stood to trim this material. Equally, writer/director Cedric Klapisch evidently hopes we'll forget the whole plot about Xavier writing a romantic drama once it's served its dramatic function by bringing Xavier and Wendy together. And when we hit the one hour mark and two completely new characters hit the screen to introduce a new Anglo-Russian romance thread, you briefly think, Where the hell is this going?

And yet it works. It's not saying anything that you haven't seen in romantic comedies before, but at least it's taken the trouble to work out a new way of saying it. And it's genuinely funny, even with minor characters - Audrey Tatou, playing a character returning from the first film, has a fantastic monologue trying to explain her private life to her uncomprehending five year old son in the style of a fairy tale. ("Well, mummy has several princes on the go right now...") Yes, it needs tightened up and it could probably stand to lose 15-20 minutes, but ultimately it works as a love story.

Sprawling, but fun.