"The Gift," a disarming French sex farce opening today at the Outer Circle, revolves around the erotic holiday of a middle-aged bank clerk, Gregoire Dufour (Pierre Mondy), who has chosen early retirement. As a secret going-away present, his pals in the office conspire to hire a glamorous call girl, Barbara (Clio Goldsmith), who diverts him en route to a final business trip to Milan. Gregoire accompanies her to Venice for a blissful spree, complicated by the arrival at their Hotel Paridisio of Gregoire's boss and his son's estranged girlfriend, a scatterbrain who has mistaken the boss for Gregoire.
Throw in an oil-rich sheik whose harem is getting restless while he cavorts with one of Barbara's colleagues, and the hotel setting seems primed for a whirlwind resolution of romantic deceptions and subdeceptions in the tradition of Feydeau.
It doesn't work out quite that expertly, despite the obvious slickness and zest of writer-director Michel Lang. Here's where the essential weakness of the pretext begins to matter. There's something inescapably sniggery and sordid about the idea of a harmless bourgeois family man like Gregoire becoming the beneficiary of friendly pandering and remaining too sweetly absentminded and naive ever to suspect that his remarkable luck has been prearranged.
Madame Dufour is played by Claudia Cardinale, whose presence poses a formidable obstacle to easy acceptance of the pretense that Gregoire is ripe for a little hankypanky. As a practical matter, he seems oblivious to the domestic treasure he's got, and it might be much easier to rationalize sexual antsiness from the wife's point of view.
Lang evidently felt there was something amiss about brushing off Gregoire's beautiful missus, because the plot isn't resolved as promptly as it ought to be. He gets bogged down with a prolonged epilogue in which Gregoire hopes to relive his illicit holiday in the company of his wife, and while this lame idea retrieves Cardinale and results in some amusing business in their train compartment, it also refocuses attention on the original subterfuges, reminding you that they never made much sense and appealed to a fundamentally imbecilic notion of "racy" and/or "naughty" French comedy.
Nevertheless, "The Gift" comes as close as a movie probably can to taking the curse off a distasteful pretext. Lang imposes an upbeat tempo and a chipper, carefree tone from the outset, aided by Michel Legrand's sunniest score in quite some time.
The performers are also skillful at breathing fresh life into antiquated wheezes, and the pleasure Lang derives from showcasing their work is often irresistible. As Gregoire, Pierre Mondy suggests a smaller French equivalent of Walter Matthau rising above a Neil Simon role, and he's remarkably good at the sort of dumb situations that seem unworkable until someone actually makes them pay off again. For example, Gregoire has a running-gag back ailment that forces him to double over at embarrassing moments, and Mondy knows how to walk funny with his posture grotesquely out of joint--and also sound funny explaining it away with a line like "I lost a cuff link--a present from my grandmother."
The skimpy cast credits supplied by the distributor fail to identify a number of excellent comic actors, including the tall, officious type who plays Gregoire's hypocritical boss; he and Mondy enact the wittiest variation I've ever seen of the situation in which two people have a comic phone conversation in adjacent booths.
Despite one's reservations about the material, the geniality of the film is infectious, inspiring a willingness to play along with the gags even when their implications tend to set one's teeth on edge.
Sustained by this cheerful disposition, "The Gift" may emerge as the kind of obviously confectionary and trifling import that audiences find a welcome pick-me-up. THE GIFT
Directed and written by Michel Lang; music by Michel Legrand; director of photography, Daniel Gaudry; assistant director, Victor Tourjansky. Produced by Gilbert de Goldschmidt. In French with subtitles. This film runs 105 minutes and is rated R.
THE CAST Gregoire....Pierre Mondy Antonella....Claudia Cardinale Barbara....Clio Goldsmith Loriol....Jacques Francois