Shall We Kiss? has been on my short list of French films that deserved to be released on DVD, but one I feared might never make it. Yet, here it is, an engaging romantic comedy that's deeper, smarter and more pessimistic than it appears at first glance, a film with shrewd insight into the mysteries of human attraction.
Two strangers meet in Nantes. He (Michael Cohen) lives there. She (Julie Gayet) is passing through. At the end of their first evening together, with the air sparkling with sexual tension, he goes to kiss her, and she pulls away. It's not that she doesn't want to. It's just that she knows two other people who could kiss casually, and it didn't work out that way.
From that framing device, the narrative switches to the main story, that of Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), a happily married woman, whose best friend since high school is Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret). One day the perfect platonic purity of their relationship is altered when Nicolas asks her to kiss him. She says yes, and from there ... well, anyway, that's all you need to hear about that.
Though the French are great at making romantic dramas, their romantic comedies, contrary to what many Americans might think, tend to be a little off -- unpleasant, harsh and tony peculiar. But Shall We Kiss?, written and directed by Mouret, shows a masterful control of mood and genre.
At first, the story of Judith and Nicolas borders on light farce, but it moves seamlessly toward something more consequential. The movie is about the ramifications of actions that might, in the moment, seem natural and pure -- and about the atmospheres that allow love to thrive. It's about love's paradoxes and about the value and the limits of commitment. In true French style, it offers no answers but it poses the right questions.
Ledoyen is one of the joys of modern French cinema, an arresting young actress with a delicate look, an alert unsentimental intelligence and a deep, husky voice that sounds as if she started smoking prenatally. Mouret directs himself in a self-effacing but effective way that capitalizes on his comic strengths. And Gayet and Cohen give off a strong erotic charge in their present-day scenes -- all decorum on the surface, but with a churning undercurrent.