A man falls in love with a woman whose car has been stolen by rebel nudists. A woman obsesses over her therapy patient, who’s obsessed with a man in love with another woman, who happens to direct the film they both star in. A woman falls in love with a younger man who turns out to be a ghost.
Romantic comedies have been on the decline for a number of years in the United States, but in their absence a steady stream of French films — high on nudity, low on weddings — presents a duly droll alternative, especially at a time when felicity is in desperately short supply. Three recent French dramedies —Justine Triet’s Sibyl, Erwan Le Duc’s The Bare Necessity (La Perdrix), and Stéphane Batut’s Burning Ghost (Vif-Argent) — boast their own individual je ne sais quoi, less in spite than because of their wacky storylines.
Dubbed an “unhinged melodrama” by the New York Times, Sibyl is perhaps more properly enjoyed as a semi-farcical triangle amoureux. Take it seriously at your own peril, or delight in its implausibility. Sibyl (Virginie Efira), a therapist and former novelist, counsels a panicked, pregnant actress named Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos) to escape the tedium of domestic life and a decade of sobriety. Sibyl shamelessly records their sessions to integrate, sometimes word for word, the dialogue and plot into her new novel. Meanwhile, Margot stars in a maudlin movie-in-progress with her lover — a caddish manchild named Igor (Gaspard Ulliel) — who is inconveniently coupled to the film’s director, a prickly German named Mika (Sandra Hüller).
Sibyl inhales Margot’s torment like a freshly lit Gauloises cigarette, going so far as to join her on set in Greece, where she agrees to be a go-between for Igor and Margot, only to capitulate to his charms for a late-night tryst on the black Stromboli sand. (“How’s the sex?” Sibyl asks Margot of Igor months earlier in session, evidently taking notes.) “My life is a fiction,” Sibyl shares in voiceover late in the film, gazing at her bearded husband in a restaurant while her daughters amuse themselves at a table of their own. “I can rewrite it however I like. I can do anything, change anything, create anything.” No attitude could be further from today’s collective zeitgeist, and it’s a blessing to escape its reaches.
A cross between Wings of Desire and The Good Place, Burning Ghost wears its heart on its ethereal sleeve. In the first scene, a young man (Thimotée Robart) awakens aside a moonlit lake, then stumbles down a leafy hill onto the tracks of the metro. “I’m not sure what’s happening,” he tells the man (Djolof Mbengue) who runs a tiny tailoring business next to the rails. In the next scene, the amnesiac — who recalls that his name is Juste — is interviewed by a prim psychologist about his memories of the past. “I was fine before,” he laments. “I was like anybody else.” What slowly becomes clear is that anybody who dies visits one last earthly memory before being escorted to the afterlife. Juste, in purgatory wearing a black sequin jacket, is one such escort, and makes quite a companion to the wild cadre of newly dead Parisians. Things get (even more) complicated when he encounters Agathe (Judith Chemla) on the light rail; she’s convinced they’ve met before and — voila! — a grand romance.
Whereas Sibyl occasionally attempts some emotional heavy lifting (often to the sound of repeatedly struck single piano keys), and Burning Ghost tends toward supernatural sincerity, The Bare Necessity parades its weirdness through the town square—not least because a major plot point is the rise of “radical nudists” within the Vosges forest.
Rejecting clothing as the last vestige of materialism, this renegade of granola guerrillas will literally tear the shirt off your back — even off that of the local village’s police captain, a thin, laconic man named Pierre Perdrix (Swann Arlaud). Marooned with his eccentric family, headed by matriarch Thérèse (played by grande dame Fanny Ardant), Pierre buries his own desires for the sake of the whole — until an even more eccentric woman named Juliette (Maud Wyler) makes that impossible. When she is car-jacked by a naked stranger, the moody Juliette crashes with the Perdrix family under the pretense of waiting for stolen notebooks in her car to be found. For the first half of the movie, she scoffs at the prospect of human connection, impassive to the glances of Pierre and his awkward cop charms. By the end, the nomadic femme is still scoffing, but settled with a newly confident Pierre. The nudists remain at large.
Despite their far-fetched narratives, this trio of films generously offer some very believable sex scenes. In The Bare Necessity, the 70-something widow, Thérèse, beds the local menfolk with breezy nonchalance. “I was robbed of the man I loved,” she tells a nonplussed Juliette, “so I decided to have them all.” In Sibyl, our troubled heroine flashes back to a series of throw-downs with an ex — on a floor rug, against a wall, and on the counter of a sink in a swank ladies restroom. “I don’t love you,” she taunts before hiking up her panties, an ashtray smoking behind her. It’s breathy and sweaty and, quite reasonably, rushed. In Batut’s feature, even sex with a spirit seems pretty darn real (as compared to when Patrick Swayze unchained Demi Moore’s melody in 1990’s Ghost).
In the face of an impending presidential election, rising COVID numbers, and a nation generally fraught by socioeconomic and environmental strife, it might seem a bit, well, gauche at present to whimsify one’s viewing diet. For those with the appetite, there’s hardly a dearth of heavier French fare to stream, including Divines, Les Miserables, and, yes, the controversial Cuties. But no Francophile can live on ragout alone. Burning Ghost, Sibyl, and The Bare Necessity are each the cinematic equivalent of a soufflé with soul. In what we can expect to be a most foreboding American autumn, it’s time to fetch a spoon.