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'Happily Ever After': A Complex Love Story

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 17, 2005

"HAPPILY Ever After" has it all. Well, almost all.

It's French. It's sexy. It's got a killer soundtrack -- Radiohead, the Velvet Underground, Elvis Presley. (I know. A little weird for a French movie, but who's complaining?) It even has a cameo appearance (in French, " participation exceptionnelle" ) by the great, wondrous and amazing Johnny Depp.

Too bad it doesn't have an ending.

Ah, but it's so good, so knowing, in its Gallic way, about love and marriage, that even without it I didn't care. Endings aren't all they're cracked up to be anyway, especially in a movie whose fairy-tale title is firmly tongue-in-cheek. As someone said in another recent, not so great movie, "Happy endings are just stories that haven't finished yet."

Indeed.

What "Happily Ever After" does is to take love -- or, I should say, heterosexual coupling -- and, like the imperfect gemstone it is, scrutinize it from every angle, turning it over and over and over. Instead of two sides, it presents at least six.

The central couple is Vincent (writer-director Yvan Attal) and Gabrielle (Attal's real-life wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg). Behind the idyllic facade (beautiful wife, great kid), Vincent has been cheating on Gabrielle, and she knows it. The problem is not that Vincent doesn't love her anymore or that he no longer lusts for her, but that he does. A very messy, very tender (and very hot) sex scene, riffing deliciously on the kitchen sequence in "Nine 1/2 Weeks," is proof of this. It's just that he happens to love his mistress (Angie David) as well.

Vincent's friend Georges (Alain Chabat), on the other hand, has been faithful to his wife (Emmanuelle Seigner) but seems to have tired of her and their son. What he thinks he wants, but doesn't have the courage (or is it cowardice?) to go out and get, is the kind of life Fred (Alain Cohen), a playboy buddy of Vincent and Georges's, has created for himself. That is to say, no commitments whatsoever and a different girlfriend every night (and sometimes two).

Then there are Vincent's parents (Anouk Aimee and Claude Berri), a couple who have been married, and presumably faithful, to each other for 40 years, but who have nothing to say to each other at the dinner table. Finally, there are George's neighbors (Kitu Gidwani and Sujay Sood), husband and wife of 15 years, and still so in love it's disgusting.

"You can't love several people at once," Gabrielle lectures her son, Joseph (real-life son Ben Attal) when the boy flirts with an older high school girl he meets across the aisle on the bus. But is this really true? Attal's film seems to ask. Later, Vincent himself tells Joseph that "value is what a thing costs" while trying to explain why we have to pay for toys. Of course, Daddy's economic lesson comes at a point in the plot when his actions have given those words unintended double meaning.

That's really all I wanted -- and have been trained to expect -- from the film's wrap-up: Some kind of closure that indicated that Vincent, or any of the other characters, had come to realize what the cost of infidelity is and what a marriage is worth.

But that, "Happily Ever After" argues, is not the world we live in. In keeping with Attal's evenhanded, though some might say jaundiced, and surprisingly deep meditation on monogamy, the movie's last shot (and most lingering image) is a kind of happily-ever-after fantasy sequence, with lovers meeting against a wind-swept blue sky. But it turns out that it's all in Gabrielle's head . . . and it doesn't involve the man she married.

HAPPILY EVER AFTER (Unrated, 100 minutes) -- Contains sex scenes, nudity, obscenity and brief drug use. In French with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company