An odd couple on the surface
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Mar. 23, 2012
In the inflexible calculus of movie romance, beauty and the beast don't add up. If there's a relationship between a gorgeous woman and an unattractive man - or vice versa - it's typically played for easy laughs. Either that, or the ugly duckling, who's often just a hot-looking movie star with a bad haircut and glasses, turns out to have been a swan all along.
Not so with "Delicacy," a charming French love story about a beautiful widow (Audrey Tautou) and the schlub who loves her (Francois Damiens).
Tautou's Nathalie is a workaholic businesswoman trying to get over the death of her husband (Pio Marmai) three years earlier. She's way out of the league of Markus (Damiens), her balding, paunchy, duck-footed co-worker who's given to wearing bad sweaters. Their sweet office friendship, which slowly, believably grows into something more, gives viewers plenty to smile about, but it isn't exactly fodder for comedy in this adaptation of David Foenkinos's novel, which he wrote and co-directed with his brother Stephane.
Nor, for that matter, does Markus undergo a miraculous makeover. At the end of the movie, his teeth are just as bad as they were at the beginning.
It's refreshing but also a little jarring.
We're so used to seeing beautiful, well-groomed people on-screen that to watch one of them kiss someone who isn't just doesn't make sense visually. Markus himself can't understand it. "It's as if Liechtenstein were walking with the U.S.A.," he tells Nathalie one night, as the incongruous couple takes a romantic stroll through Paris.
His wry, clear-eyed sense of humor, in fact, is what Nathalie sees in him. That, and the way Markus doesn't just look at her but listens to her. After hearing her tell a story about her favorite childhood candy, he surprises her with a gift-wrapped Pez dispenser. Yes, it's goofy. But the adorkability of the gift, which is really about paying attention, catches her - and us - off guard.
The imbalance destabilizes the film, but in a good way. For a second, toward the beginning of the movie, it almost looks as if Nathalie is about to embark on an office romance with her married boss (Bruno Todeschini), who, despite his suavity and good looks, is more than slightly sleazy. That the Foenkinos brothers don't go that route is commendable.
Where they do go is consistently surprising, as is their film. Why? It's not so easy to say.
Odd-couple love stories aren't actually all that rare. But to be sure, Markus's unvarnished homeliness may be. (Rarer still is the fact that the filmmakers don't apologize for it, or make jokes about it, except when Markus does.)
But it isn't Markus's self-deprecating sense of humor alone that sets him in good stead with Nathalie. His most endearing quality is the one that titles the film. It is Markus's sensitivity to nuance and to the feelings of others that characterizes every step that he - and this sure-footed if off-kilter film - takes.