"My wife left me this morning," says the Inspector to Fernand, whom he has been interrogating about a mysterious accident.
"Me, too," says Fernand, who has been denying all knowledge of the accident.
"Oh, I thought she was your friend's wife."
"So did he."
"Why did she leave you?"
Fernand shakes his head, in bafflement.
"My wife called me an Egg Face," says the Inspector. "And in 20 years of marriage, there was never an angry word."
"It's true," says Fernand. "You do have an Egg Face."
The Inspector looks aggrieved.
"Shall I teach you to play Ping-Pong?" ask Fernand.
Repeat after me, the French have a sense of humor.
It has been easy to lose track of this fact lately, in the wake of Bertrand Blier's "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs." It will be easier still after Coline Serreau's "Why Not!" now at the Outer Circle 1.
"Why Not!" (not to be confused with "Why Not?") is 30-year-old Serreau's first turn as a writer/director, and it wears its firstness on its surrealistic sleeve. Serreau's entire philosophy of life -- which may be summarized without a great deal of injustice as "If it makes you happy, do it?" -- is laid out in a dizzy parable of two young men and one young woman living an idyllic exile from middle-class conventions.
Fernand, Alexa and Louis share a large, ramshackle suburban house: Fernand doing the cleaning and cooking; Alexa out earning their keep (reading the same novel over and over again to the same invalid woman); and Louis making music on an assortment of instruments. And when chores are over, they make love in every possible permutation.
Yes, it's menage a trois time again. For, you see, each of the parties to this shocking arrangement has been through the bourgeois-ethical ringer.
Alexa has a neurotic husband who tries to bribe her into coming back to him, then socks her on the chin. Fernand was married, too, but his wife wrote him off as a sissy and has forbidden him to see his children. Louis was never married, but his mother used to threaten to chop his fingers off if he muffed a piano exercise.
After so much heartache, could anyone begrudge this trio a little unconventional happiness?
Certainly not. But are they happy? The misty-eyed cinematography and the sprightly soundtrack say they are. Otherwise, the evidence is flimsy. Alexa finds her job unstimulating -- not surprisingly. Louise has a nervous breakdown whenever he tries to play the piano. Fernand suffers periodic fits of screaming and ranting.
None of the three, as played by Sami Frey, Christine Murillo and Mario Gonzales, exhibits a great deal of physical charm or intellectual curiosity (or non-physical charm or non-intellectual curiosity, for that matter). And the threadbare plot -- which has the threesome temporarly dissolve as Fernand becomes involved with a second woman, then reforms as a foursome -- puts a heavy burden on the personal charm of the performers.
It is not easy to present a compelling personal vision of domestic bliss, even bliss of the bittersweet sort, on the screen. The French often try, and their most successful tries -- like Francois Trauffaut's "Jules et Jim" and Agnes Varda's "Le Bonheur" -- are exceptions that prove the rule.
"Why Not!? comes from the New Line Cinema, a company that has imported some foreign film that might better have been left where they came from. This release reaffirms the tradition.