Audrey Tautou is synonymous with a decidedly European brand of idealized romance. Advertising will tell you that she is also synonymous with Chanel, but that’s just a recent appropriation of her “natural beauty.” Tautou the Film Star — as opposed to Tautou the Shill — originally captivated the world with her persona-defining coup as Amélie. In the wake of that success, her efforts to play against type have vacillated between extremes (the excellence of Dirty Pretty Things being countered by the dross of The Da Vinci Code), and she has often fallen back on fluff (Priceless, Beautiful Lies) while asserting herself as an actress dedicated to her homeland, rather than a Hollywood convert. Delicacy finds her patented character in a familiar setting, but with a gravely dramatic bent. It turns out to be an awkward marriage, tenuously held together by the offbeat charm of an unlikely suitor in François Damiens.
There are two love stories at work in the Foenkinos brothers’ Delicacy: the star-crossed and cloying, and the improbable yet amusing. The first begins in a Paris café and is as traditionally bland as one can imagine. Two magazine-ready singles meet when François (Pio Marmaï) predicts that Nathalie (Tautou) will order a guava juice (if memory serves) — because she’s so quirky, I assume. In the next scene, they’re walking out of the same café, months later, lovers in arms on the verge of betrothal. But their perfect relationship is cut short by tragedy after a brief marriage and an atrocious montage, and the buoyancy of the early-going gives way to mourning. To cope, Nathalie buries herself in her work as a project manager for a Swedish firm, and the film finds its elusive center when she spontaneously kisses one of her subordinates, the ungainly Markus (Damiens). Office rumors swirl and doubts are cast because Markus doesn’t fit the mold of a man Nathalie would date. (The chorus rings: She could do so much better!) But unlike the rest of the drones, Markus has a sense of humor. And his gawkiness is what carries the movie, at least in the redeemable parts.
While Damiens turns out to be the real draw, it’s clear that Delicacy was primed for Tautou to reveal her emotive side, perhaps to validate her as a dramatic actress rather than further her popular identity as an affable and adorable sprite. After the death of her husband, Nathalie avoids family and retreats from relationships, and Tautou ably conveys Nathalie’s grief as she receives news of her best friend’s pregnancy and considers deleting François’ number from her cell phone, the latter surfacing as a definitively modern example of dealing with loss. But as we’re beginning to understand her pain, the film jumps ahead three years, and we find her engrossed and consumed by work.
In the time that has passed, Nathalie has become a ball-busting careerist and has shelved her personal life, only going on a single date with her lecherous boss. So it’s a surprise to everyone when she begins seeing Markus, and although it doesn’t fit the tone that has been established, the levity is a welcomed reprieve. Their relationship becomes the new focal point, and as Markus’ character is scrutinized by everyone around him, the filmmakers shift the point of view to expose his sense of inadequacy. It’s subtle enough that it’s not distracting, but it isn’t necessary, because we know by his mannerisms that he feels like Nathalie is out of his league. His ineptitude is the running punchline, and it is funny, yet they harp on his insecurities when they could have played up his eccentricity. Although they were aiming to imbue the character with depth and nuance, Markus occasionally comes off as pathetic, and the film is far more enjoyable when Damiens is just mugging and daydreaming.
From a filmic standpoint, Delicacy could easily be dismissed as flimsy and inconsistent. The Foenkinos brothers cite Gondry and Truffaut as influences, but I only see glimmers of those luminaries. By attempting to cop their styles, they wind up overextending themselves and inviting unfavorable comparisons. As a stream of relationship-defining events, however, the film is understandable, and one could say it is too earnest and well-intentioned to be misguided. Even its fractured narrative is endearing, or it appears to be. It doles out captured moments and flights of fantasy indiscriminately, suggesting that they are either one in the same or interwoven. Still, the payoff is sporadic, and my prediction is that only Tautou’s acolytes (Tautouians? Tautouies?) will want to invest their time in this kind of mediocrity.