The Reeler


April 19, 2007

The Valet

Diverting in the best way, Veber's farce is so light on its feet it barely touches the ground

The French are different from you and me: They have hotter tempers and yet are more forgiving; they eat cheese and duck pate but don’t get fat; they still read philosophy but adore Jerry Lewis; and they love a gut-punishing art film almost as much as a dorky, featherweight farce. The Valet, Francis Veber’s latest, unabashed amuse bouche of a picture, is further evidence of that last assertion; the opening credits, set to a generic version of Chuck Berry's "Ridin' Around in My Automobile," look like something out of a ‘70s sitcom, and I made a mental note to check France’s position on Three’s Company.

The valet of the title is Francois Pignon (Gad Elmaleh, his moon face and blue high beams suggesting Thomas Cavanagh’s geeky docility), a decent, working-class fellow who wants nothing more than to marry lovely Emilie (lovely Virginie Ledoyen). “Francois Pignon” is a Veber regular, and while Daniel Auteil took on that sad sack mantle in 2001’s The Closet, here he plays billionaire Pierre Levasseur, union buster and captain of industry. Pierre is in a bind because his supermodel girlfriend Elena (outta sight gorgeous Alice Taglioni) is through waiting for him to divorce his wife, Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas, still divine in Lagerfeld and speaking perfect Parisian), and said wife comes across a tabloid photo of them together in the street.

Our Francois happened to be strolling by just as the photo was taken, dejected after Emilie’s rejection of his marriage proposal; having just purchased a bookstore, she is more worried about paying down her sizable loan, and anyway finds the idea of the brotherly Pignon as a husband to be ludicrous. Francois’ fellow valet and roommate Richard (Dany Boon) is thrilled, however, as this means he doesn’t have to move out. As the designated rube, with none of Francois’ sweetness to take the edge off, Richard offers a little less wacka-wacka value (he’s asked to dislocate his jaw over several beautiful women) than his director seems to think.

The old saw about France’s open-secret approach to mistresses proves untrue here, possibly because Christine holds a controlling interest in her husband’s company, and a divorce would make her a very rich woman. Pierre scrambles to appease her threats by bribing both Elena and Francois (whom his lawyers have mysteriously tracked down from the blurry picture) to live together for one month and convince Christine that it is they who have a relationship; Elena agrees on the promise that a divorce will follow, Francois so that he can pay off Emilie’s debt.

With flat, three-camera sitcom lighting (a feat somehow managed outdoors as well as in) and a '50s Technicolor palette, The Valet looks like something you might pass while flipping through the channels in a Paris hotel room, though by definition that can’t be all bad. The wistful rapport between Elena and Francois is a warm surprise, and there are enough paparazzi-assisted twists and winking, social happenstance to keep the essential upstairs/downstairs vibe cantering forward. “Life’s complex for pretty, rich people,” Francois sighs, upon realizing that the faux-couple are being spied on not just by the canny Christine, but also the jealous Pierre. “No, it’s just the same,” Elena replies, and she is proven more or less right: in this particular class-conscious quadrangle, love is the great, humbling equalizer. Diverting in the best way, The Valet is so light on its feet it barely touches the ground; of course, as the French know, the ground can be highly overrated.

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