‘Romantics Anonymous’ Is a Light Confection of a Film

“Too many people think of chocolate as sweet,” Jean René says to Angélique. “When in reality it’s—” “Bitterness,” Angélique says. “It’s the bitterness that sets it apart.” Several second later, Jean-René, the proprietor of a failing chocolaterie, hires her. Then he brusquely ushers her out the door.

There’s far more sweetness than bitterness in this new film by Jean-Pierre Améris — in chocolatier terms, it’s maybe ten percent cocoa solids. But the continual disconnect of the two protagonists, despite their mutual adoration of chocolate, is what propels the story. Both Angélique (Isabelle Carré) and Jean René (Benoît Poelvoorde) are cripplingly shy, so when he hires her as a sales rep for his chocolates, she can’t work up the nerve to tell him that she thought she was applying for a job as a chocolatier.

It’s a farcical scenario that’s heightened by the tasks that Jean René’s psychotherapist sets for him (ask someone to dinner, touch someone, etc), largely because Jean René’s uncharacteristic overtures draw Angélique to him, but his social anxiety undermines his follow-through — which means that he effectively rejects her, over and over. There is, for instance, the awkward dinner date from which he at last escapes out of the bathroom window, humiliated by his own foibles; and there is the incongruously sprung kiss that he cuts off abruptly.

Yet Angélique and Jean René’s social awkwardness is far from excruciating to watch. Set against a muted chocolate background, accented in shades of red and green, the continually thwarted courtship of the nervously bumbling proprietor and the reclusive chocolatier is always a very light confection. The storybook sensibility that chocolate inspires in filmmakers is here — although it’s never as foreboding as Chocolat or as fantastical as either film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Inevitably, the color scheme and whimsically drawn characters make it reminiscent of that illustrated children’s book of a film that is Amélie. The genre is enjoyably recognizable and, here, too, it mostly goes down like warm cocoa.

We first meet Angélique in the support group that gives the film its title, although “romantics” is a somewhat misleading translation. (You could be forgiven if the title led you to believe the film was about a couple of incurable romantics, whose biggest problem is that they keep strewing rose petals on the bed sheets and telling each other they were meant to be together.) Émotif is the word in the original, and it means something more like “emotionally volatile.”

In any case, both Angélique’s support group and Jean René’s psychotherapy sessions serve to establish their personal histories and the specifics of their respective social anxieties. It’s a technique that’s fairly by-the-numbers, but because the group meetings and psychotherapy sessions are as whimsically drawn as the rest of the film, any seriously maudlin sentiment is kept at bay. (And there is a support group scene, when Angélique first demonstrates her unchecked ardor for good chocolate, that’s pretty charming.)

What becomes clear, via these parallel sessions, is that, despite their continual emotional fumbling, each is uniquely suited to understand the other’s plight. Happily, their mutual passion for chocolate can mediate their otherwise unspeakable feelings for one another — a point that is all the more urgent when it becomes apparent that Angélique is, secretly, a master chocolatier whose virtuosity can save the company. The scene where Angélique first guides Jean-René through making chocolates, she suddenly confident and radiant, he mesmerized and excited, is nice. The tasting session that involves the exchange of a passel of double entendres is, perhaps, slightly gratuitous — but it’s easy enough to forgive them. This is, after all, a farce.

Curiously, when the inevitable happy ending does arrive, chocolate is absent. Instead, Améris has chosen to conclude with a scene that is similar in spirit to the final scenes of Secretary — another film about two social outliers who find one another. In both instances, what is ultimately celebrated is the characters’ mutual understanding. Romantics Anonymous cartoonishly glosses that bittersweetness, but the taste is still discernible.

DVD extras: A three-minute interview with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Améris is the only trapping that accompanies the film. His observation that chocolate is an “emotional food” is no doubt borne out by his film.

RATING 6 / 10