Angèle (Nathalie Baye) is a skilled beautician at Venus Beauty, a Parisian beauty salon. She knows all about pollution’s asphyxiating effects on the skin, the healing powers of a facial massage, essential oils, and seaweed wraps, and how Rosy Beige rouge can brighten even the dullest complexion. Angèle is also lonely and unhappy, and looking for something beautiful. But as Tonie Marshall’s Venus Beauty (Institute) (Vénus beauté (institut)) demonstrates, not all internal blemishes can be made undone with the latest anti-aging serum available for purchase for only 700 francs.
The workers at Venus Beauty are Angèle, Samantha (Mathilde Seigner), and Marie (Audrey Tautou), who gossip about their love lives and service a host of unique clients, all reflections of Angèle’s troubled emotional being. Their clients arrive each day, announced by the harp-toned doorbell. Madame Buisse (Claire Nebout) is a tall, attractive woman obsessed with getting the perfect tan, who doesn’t think twice about walking out of the tanning room naked when she can’t find her robe. One of Marie’s regulars is a middle-aged pilot (Robert Hossein) whose deceased wife “donated” skin from her buttocks to repair his damaged face following a parachute accident. To honor her memory and to keep her skin smooth, he has weekly facial massages, during which he talks to Marie about love. Over the course of several sessions, he slowly seduces the virginal Marie, showering her with gifts from pearl necklaces to Tasmanian mink stoles. Angèle’s facial massage client hates to have her face touched and has difficulty breathing during the “relaxing” treatment. And another woman, claiming that only her hands give away her age, tells Angèle that she has nothing in common with her dull daughters, all the while gazing at herself in the mirror.
Beneath Angèle’s beautiful exterior lies a woman unable, unwilling, or just afraid to reveal herself. Like the widowed pilot, Angèle divulges her secrets to strangers, then seduces them. The difference is that Angèle, much like the client who hates her face being touched, refuses to be close to anyone. She also has difficulty looking at and accepting herself: she washes her face at the mirrorless sink in the hallway of her apartment building, doesn’t wear make-up, claiming she has no time in the morning, and cringes when the shop’s owner Nadine (Bulle Ogier) tells her to put on some Rosy Beige.
We first meet Angèle when she’s closing the salon for the evening. After turning out the overhead lights, she is bathed in the blue glow from the fluorescent lights on the window: blue light—a telltale sign that all is not well in Angèle’s life. The next morning she has coffee with her beau of three days. She talks; he listens. She suggests that they get together twice a week for sex. He responds curtly, “Stick to fucking. Stop making plans.” Though she’s put off, Angèle follows him to the train station, where she threatens to stalk him. It’s clear that Angèle has issues. She jumps from one one-night stand to the next, refuses to “give in to love,” yet feels see her former boyfriend, Jacques (Jacques Bonnaffé), in a relationship not easily defined.
With all this baggage, it’s understandable that Prince Charming’s sudden appearance is not enough to make Angèle forget all her troubles and ride off with him into the Parisian sunset. She sees only his flaws: Antoine (Samuel Le Bihan) isn’t the handsomest man to walk into her life, though his unkempt hair adds to his rugged charms. And while he actively pursues Angèle, Antoine is engaged to another woman. Don’t get me wrong: Antoine is *not* a smooth-talking creep. He is sincere, honest, and respectful. He even refuses her drunken advances one night, telling her he refuses to “fuck her when [she’s] dead drunk.”
Venus Beauty is a love story in the sense that the audience knows the leading characters are meant to be together. The only obstacles in their way are her emotional resistance and his jealous fiancée—no small obstacles, mind you. Antoine and Angèle’s burgeoning relationship is anything but pleasant, as Angèle repeatedly dismisses his advances. However, Antoine means well and you can’t help but cheer for him as he tries again and again to win Angèle’s affections, regardless of how distant and unfriendly she is to him.
Although Venus Beauty (Institute) could be construed as a scathing commentary on women’s obsession with beauty—as Angèle tells Jacques, “That’s all we sell.”—Marshall is more interested in probing emotions that lie beneath this surface, and especially, in showing how love offers different things to different people. While the film’s premise is not unusual, Marshall’s approach is refreshing in that she does not assume love is the universal cure all. Samantha is happy to continue flirting with and dating any and every man she meets; Marie makes no attempt to discontinue her relationship with the widower, although it becomes purely sexual and materialistic; Antoine will have to assuage Angèle’s misgivings, as she will have to confront his fiancée. The film’s ending is visually magical—complete with a kiss and real sparks—but does not promise a “happily ever after.” Rather, it only suggests that when something beautiful comes your way, you should hold onto it for as long as you’re able.