C'est la Vie: 'Happenstance,' Fated to Charm
Friday, February 15, 2002
Nobody makes better French movies than the French. When the Americans try to make them, they're pretty bad, just as when the French try to make American films, they also stinkez up le joint.
Happily, the French have given up trying to out-blow-up and out-banter us and have returned to what they do best: small, witty romances set in real worlds, controlled by fate and circumstance, where in that magic Gallic way, justice is paid out, the fated lovers finally meet and the jerks encounter sad times.
And no movie is Frenchier than the treatise on the heaviness of lightness called "Happenstance," which stars Audrey Tautou, gaminelike, waiflike, vivid and completely adorable. If you do not love this woman you are (a) also a woman or (b) a fool or (c) haven't seen "Amelie."
In French called "The Beating of the Butterfly's Wings," "Happenstance" takes its central theme from chaos theory, the notion that the beating of a butterfly's wings over the Atlantic can ultimately cause a typhoon over the Pacific that is, that everything affects everything, and each random gesture or event somehow exerts an influence on each that comes after it. As it turns out, this theory is far more interesting when applied to l'amour than to the weather.
Tautou is but one of a whole crew of Parisians who have in common the following: They yearn for love and are continually turning to fallacious systems palm reading, tarot cards, lotteries, deciding the rest of their lives based on the outcome of random events to understand The System that encases them. They don't know the following basic truth about The System: There is no system. It's just luck and random drift, and they have no idea how luck and random drift connect them. Only God would know, and it's doubtful He pays much attention to small stuff like this.
But writer-director Laurent Firode pays close attention, not only to the universe but also to, I'll bet, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," which was a similar musing on the weirdness of connections. Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run" also examined this idea. La Tautou plays Irene, a salesgirl of no particular ambition. We meet her on the Metro, where a fellow passenger reads her her daily horoscope, which announces that love is very close. It is. It is sitting in the next seat, in the shape of Younes (played by a pop star with one name, Faudel), a restaurateur also in love with love. One look at Tautou's Irene and love has a face, if not a name. But a small unforeseen catastrophe the collapse of a homeless man in a station destroys any chance he might have of meeting her.
Essentially that's the movie: It follows these two through their day as they continually intersect people who continually intersect each other. The camera is like a small, baffled dog that simply affixes itself to whichever passerby seems interesting. Small events a shoe tossed in a road, a pebble picked up in a park, a cookie tossed out of a car window have staggering consequences, though if those things had not happened, it's quite possible other, different but equally staggering things would have.
Among the lives we briefly, amusingly enter are those of a man torn between his pushy mistress and his suffering wife; a dreamy, lying loser who is being tossed out of his mother's house by Mama herself and must finally face reality; his grandma, who is dying; a nasty department store head clerk who runs the coffee machine department (where Irene works); a pickpocket; a homeless man; a bug; a security guard. The bug is played by M. Le Bug, and it is a truly splendid performance.
It's not that all these people (and insects) hook up perfectly in the end. That's not the point. The point is, there is no point: Some hook up, some don't. A fellow who may be God assuming that God, if He's French, would be entirely bald and rather arrogant shows up to offer commentary on the utter whimsy of it all.
On and on it goes, like a mad whirligig or a greased-up Rubik's Cube that keeps spitting out new combinations. And all this on a single lousy day!