Daniel Auteuil is probably France’s pre-eminent actor, but he’s never made a splash on this side of the ocean. And he probably never will; his talents are distinctly French, from his decidedly unintimidating appearance to his fascinating face, which morphs through countless expressions of frustration, amusement and impotent rage in the course of his average comedy. He probably wouldn’t make much sense to American audiences'and his films don’t always travel terribly well, either. The cultural divide is just one reason for the struggles of Après Vous, director Pierre Salvadori’s otherwise enjoyable farce that’s making the rounds on this continent two years after its release in France.
Chief among its other problems is that curious European storytelling idea about suicide attempts being an annoying ailment no more tragic than, say, a broken leg or sleep apnea. Last year, the Danish-Scottish film Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself featured a character with suicidal tendencies which just sort of went away after a series of whimsical attempts that very nearly worked each time. Surely I wasn’t the only American flabbergasted by the blitheness of his brother’s attitude: Oh, that Wilbur with his insatiable thirst for death. What a character.
Louis (José Garcia) has that same lust for his own demise, and it’s just the start of the implausibilities in Après Vous. After breaking up with his girlfriend, Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain), Louis stands on his suitcase and attempts to hang himself from a tree in a Paris park, but he’s interrupted by Antoine (Auteuil, all tics and grimaces and desperate smiles), a maitre d’ who saves Louis'and, since this is a French farce, then feels responsible for his perpetual well-being. Antoine takes him home and introduces him to his girlfriend, Christine (Marilyne Canto). Louis suddenly remembers that he wrote a farewell letter to his grandmother. The guys head out to steal the letter, and before we know it, Antoine is determined to fix everything else that’s wrong with Louis.
Perhaps that suicide-is-painless theme inadvertently dampens the proceedings, since they never really gather the energy necessary in the best French farce. Après Vous actually moves quite slowly, particularly when a romantic triangle arises involving Louis, who’s pushed by Antoine into attempting a reconciliation with Blanche, who seems to be interested in Antoine, who’s determined not to steal the ex-girlfriend of the guy for whose life he’s responsible, even though he thinks she’s great. In the meantime, the best comic moments arise when Antoine gets a job for Louis as the sommelier at his restaurant, frantically coaching him through the job interview; Louis always recommends a red, preferrably an expensive brand, and he describes the wine’s effects rather than its qualities.
When the romance gets all tangled up, the more predictable elements of French comedy kick in, but Après Vous never gathers critical momentum. The final 45 minutes are particularly tedious, even though Auteuil and Kiberlain are quite charming in that Gallic way; as required by his part, Garcia frequently is a hangdog, overdramatic killjoy who secretly seems to be enjoying his burdensome presence in Antoine’s life. Things even get warm and fuzzy in the final scenes, when another variation on the suicide theme rears its head in an equally awkward and befuddling way. Auteuil is strong to the end, frantically selling a character who’s simultaneously too good and too wishy-washy to be believed. It’s a combination that might work only in France'and in that case, Auteuil is the man for it.