My Wife Is An Actress (Ma Femme est une Actrice) (France, 2001) ***
Written and directed by Yvan Attal. Photography, Remy Chevrin. Editing, Jennifer Auger. Production design: Katia Wyszkop. Music, Producer, Claude Berri. Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Yvan Attal, Terence Stamp, Noemie Lvosky, Laurent Bateau, Ludivine Sagnier, Keith Allen, Lionel Abelanski. A Sony Classics release. In French (subtitled) and English. 93 minutes. R (nudity) At the New Art Theater.
The first film made by writer-director Yvan Attal is original, polished, clever and sophisticated. Mr. Attal was born in Tel-Aviv (Israel), grew up in the suburbs of Paris (France) and has been an actor since 1989.
He is married to actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, who could claim, as in the song Judy Garland sings in "A Star is Born" that she was "born in a trunk," i.e. in a family of performers. Her father Serge Gainsbourg was a major songwriter, singer, actor, etc. Her mother is British actress Jane Birkin, well-known for films in both the U.K. and France. She was number two of Serge's four wives.
Whereas Yvan Attal the actor is not (not yet?) famous in France, Ms. Gainsbourg is well known and most popular. In "My Wife is an Actress" art follows nature. To use the otherwise irrelevant title of an older film, we get here an "Imitation of Life." Attal plays Yvan, an ordinary sportswriter. He is married to Charlotte, a movie star celebrity. The difference in status is amusingly shown when the couple's car is stopped by a cop who keeps gazing rapturously at Charlotte and forgets all about a ticket or speeding. Or when Yvan can get a restaurant reservation only after midnight, but when Charlotte phones it produces instant results. The movie's ironical, true-to-life statements on the cult of celebrity set the tone lightly and efficiently.
Totally bilingual Charlotte goes to London to be in a film whose plot is not revealed, except that Terence Stamp plays an airline pilot and Gainsbourg a cabin attendant. Stamp's film roles started with that of the innocent, wide-eyed Billy Budd in the eponymous 1962 movie, and went on to a rich variety in which he was never typrcast or pigeonholed. Here, as John, he is a big star who seems blasť with his work. An amateur painter he takes "real art" much more seriously than films. He is also a seducer of women, a la Don Juan, that is, dutifully rather than passionately.
Back in Paris, a man who may not be a jerk but acts as one, plants into Yvan's mind the notion that films scenes of lovemaking do have real physical contact. The bug in Yvan's ear develops into increasing jealousy about Charlotte and John. "Have you slept with him?" becomes a litany by Yvan who twice travels to London. His wife's denials in only make matters worse.
Mr. Attal's love of classic American movies is a given from the opening of his film with a parade of photos of great U.S. actresses. This affection goes well beyond lip-service (and eye/ear service.) Hollywood is rich with plots in which married couples have problems of jealousy, of conflicting carreer, political or professional interests. For starters, think of the Tracy-Hepburn movies. Then think of American screwball movies. But notice how Yan Attal, as writer, director and actor does not engage in copy-cat activities. "My Wife "may be related to the older films but is also an entirely fresh entity.
Among the many new-to-the genre elements is the fact that none of the principals is Hollywoodishly glamorous or handsome; that the couple live in a nice apartment in Paris rather in a California-type mansion; that no signs of wealth or luxury are present.
There is, however, a link to Woody Allen's work. The Jewishness of the couple and their relatives is steadily underlined, shown and mentioned, notably in the case of Yan's pregnant sister who is married to a non-Jew, is expecting a boy, and constantly argues with her husband about the child's name and his circumcision. It is all funny, refreshing and realistic.
The movie's twists and turns progress at a rapid pace (like the older American comedies) and integrate a series of believable surprises, including one (a howl) of collective nudity which brought about an R-rating. Highly recommended.