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'Happily Ever After': Chasing The Cliche

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 17, 2005

As he did in "My Wife Is an Actress," the Israeli-born French filmmaker Yvan Attal once again turns to his wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg, as his muse in "Happily Ever After," a meditation on the joys and frustrations of monogamy that manages to be a diverting and funny character study at least most of the time.

The chronicle of a couple, played by Attal and Gainsbourg, who are trying to rekindle the passion in a marriage foundering on the shoals of parenthood and routine, "Happily Ever After" poses the enduring question of whether the cliche of its title can ever really come true.

Given the way things turn out, Attal doesn't really think so. Still, you've got to admire Gabrielle (Gainsbourg) and Vincent (Attal) as they go to increasingly wild efforts to inject some unpredictability into their domestic life. (At their most wacky, those efforts include an epic food fight set to the shoot-out scene of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," with much better use of that movie's anachronistic soundtrack.)

Meanwhile, in a scenario reminiscent of the thankfully short-lived HBO series "The Mind of the Married Man," Vincent plays cards and drinks coffee with his buddies George (Alain Chabat), who's miserably married to a gorgeous feminist (Emmanuelle Seigner, in a wonderfully counterintuitive piece of casting) and Fred (Alain Cohen), a sexually compulsive bachelor who even manages to seduce a woman calling the wrong number.

At its best, "Happily Ever After," which Attal wrote and directed, is an engaging romantic roundelay featuring an ensemble of terrific actors. Gainsbourg, who is the daughter of legendary French singer Serge Gainsbourg and his equally legendary wife, Jane Birkin, has one of those inexplicable faces that, although not beautiful in a conventional sense, is compellingly, compulsively watchable. Chabat, as the chronically complaining George, also delivers a standout performance as the film's comic relief; he's like the French version of a rumpled Peter Riegert.

From the movie's clever feint of an opening scene, Attal does a good job of keeping the audience guessing as to where each of these vividly realized characters will end up, and he even manages a genuine surprise as one of them is, to quote the old pop song, tempted by the fruit of another. A few choice cameo appearances -- including a fantastic dialogue-free scene featuring veteran French actors Claude Berri and Anouk Aimee -- add to the movie's playful sense of surprise around every attractive Paris corner.

Maybe that city is more important than just a setting, because "Happily Ever After" definitely begins to flag after two characters move to the country. And the ending, which like the opening scene melds reality and fantasy, isn't nearly satisfying enough. Still, "Happily Ever After" offers a few modest and funny insights in its exploration of marriage's emotional tectonics, which, to the endless delight of filmmakers through the ages, will no doubt be forever shifting.

Happily Ever After (100 minutes, at Landmark's E Street, in French with subtitles) is notrated. It contains mild sexuality and profanity.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company