Shall We Kiss?, a subdued romantic comedy from France, asks the question, is there such a thing as a kiss without consequence? It’s a question for the ages, one that’s been addressed implicitly throughout the years in countless tales of infidelity and explicitly in films like Fisher Stevens’ little-seen Just a Kiss. Shall We Kiss? mulls over the issue for nearly all of its 102-minutes, at first with levity, later with solemn reproach.
Is there such a thing as a kiss without consequence? No, but that’s not going to stop people from trying, the film seems to say.
The film begins in Nantes as a familiar meet-cute scenario unfolds. Emile (Julie Gayet), a Parisian fabric designer in town on business, is trying to catch a taxi but having no luck. Gabriel (Michaël Cohen), a local resident offers her a ride to her hotel. The two find plenty to chat about and decide to go out for dinner. Before bidding farewell, Gabriel asks Emilie if he can give her a simple kiss to commemorate the evening. Emilie demurs; she’s married and Gabriel lives with his girlfriend. When Gabriel tries to persuade her, she offers to tell him a story that will explain why there is no such thing as an innocent kiss (cue extratextual parallels to the relationship between art and real life).
The story she tells is of Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret) and Judith (Virginie Ledoyen). Nicolas, a despondent teacher, glum over the emotional void from his last relationship, turns to his married friend Judith for advice on intimacy. They decide that if they share a kiss, it might give Nicolas a glimpse of the intimacy he’s been longing and will reinvigorate his search for new love. The kiss proves anything but simple. Shortly after, Nicolas does indeed strike up a new relationship, but the memory of the kiss haunts both him and Judith. After a few months, they’ve devolved into a full out love affair; all at the expense of their unsuspecting significant others.
Writer/director/star Mouret has been frequently referred to as the French Woody Allen. It’s not without reason as there are definite parallels between their work. Like the majority of Allen’s films, Shall We Kiss? exhibits an interest in fine art, employs classical music, has a propensity for verbose long takes and muses at length over fate verses free will. Mouret’s other major influence appears to be Eric Rohmer, the celebrated French auteur known for making such ‘moral tales’ as My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee. Judging solely by Shall We Kiss?, Mouret’s work isn’t of the same caliber as those master filmmakers, but then those are considerable shoes to fill. His direction is pleasingly understated but as a performer, he isn’t quite as subtle as he could be.
Despite having several narrative layers, flashbacks within flashbacks and multiple narrators of varying reliability, Shall We Kiss? still comes off as a fairly simple film. Its languid pacing makes it feel long-winded and overblown at times; although at others, the methodical approach extracts a surprising amount of tension. Its strongest quality is its artful shift in tone during its final half hour. Mouret suddenly alters the course with remarkable dexterity, swiftly imploring the audience to sympathize with a heretofore minor character as the consequences of Nicolas and Judith’s l’amour fou come to bear in realistic events that sidestep melodrama and are all the more poignant for it.
The final half hour leaves a lasting impression but not quite enough to fully compensate for the repetitiveness of the first hour, personified by the recurrent conversations between Nicolas and Judith and the excessive use of Tchaikovsky on the soundtrack. Even so, those looking for a little less fluff in their romantic comedies would be well to do by renting this French export over such toothless homegrown fare like Couple’s Retreat and Did You Hear About the Morgans?.