And Now Ladies and Gentlemen (2002)

Chris Elliot

For Valentin (Jeremy Irons), the thrill of the caper just isn't getting it done any longer.

And Now Ladies and Gentlemen

Director: Claude Lelouch
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Patricia Kaas, Thierry Lhermitte, Alessandra Martines
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Canal+
First date: 2002
US DVD Release Date: 2004-01-13

"You wish to reap before you sow. This is why you are sad." With these words, spoken to lovelorn lounge singer Jane Lester (Patricia Kaas), Claude Lelouch's And Now Ladies and Gentlemen cranks into low gear. In other words, Jane, slow down. In making the film, Lelouch follows this injunction with devotion. The result is a desperately methodical, though not disastrous, rumination on the axiom, "Love cures everything."

In fact, you could say that And Now Ladies and Gentlemen, now available on an extras-devoid DVD by Paramount Classics, is premised on aphorisms. Characters repeatedly speak in phrases that sound like clichés: "To circle the world, the mind is as important as the boat," or "Memories are like knowledge: it's what's left over once you forget it all." Since the film is largely in French, the actors (particularly Kaas) deliver their lines with what seems a Gallic gravitas. Perhaps this is how Sartre made soulful word-love to Simone de Beauvior, when they weren't contemplating the absence of meaning at the heart of human existence.

This pretension serves a purpose in Lelouch's film, adding the occasional note of formality to a pretty mushy enterprise. Jane and the sardonic jewel thief Valentin (Jeremy Irons) are two lost souls in a cold world, looking for someone with whom to connect. In a series of flashbacks, we see Valentin and Jane muddling through their separate existences. Jane's boyfriend has just dumped her in favor of her best friend. And for Valentin, the thrill of the caper just isn't getting it done any longer. Neither is his French girlfriend, Françoise (Alessandra Martines). And who could blame him? The victims of his criminal activities are smug jewelers, and Françoise can't stop asking, in various formulations, "Do you still love me?"

So, he's off on a four-month yacht race, while Jane is singing at a Morocco hotel. Through convenient happenstance, both end up at the same place, bored and physically ill. Overcome by periodic spells of amnesia, they black out, only to find themselves later in some new location or altered circumstances (Valentin, for example, collapses on his boat during the race, and when he wakes up the next day, he's floating into the Moroccan port).

This is heavily trafficked narrative terrain to be sure (sick in mind, sick in body). Amidst subplots (a jewelry theft at the hotel, a side romance between a boxer's wife and a vagrant worker), Valentin and Jane seek cures for their physical conditions: he through traditional medicine, she through a pilgrimage to the tomb of a dead saint, Lalla Chafia. What they really need is to connect with each other. And what better place to connect than in the alien landscape of Morocco, with its "inspirational" primitivism (dirt roads, eccentric locals) and omnipresent spirituality (a faith healer, the tomb of the saint).

The film opposes this place to Valentin and Jane's cosmopolitan backgrounds. Absent the accumulated cultural chaff of London and Paris, the Moroccan town -- represented as an enchanted landscape of simplicity -- allows the two leads to "connect" amidst the noble savages. They wander about, receiving either friendly direction or earthy advice from the natives, advice that is "right" precisely because it lacks "European" pretense. All of this signifies, according to the post-colonial logic of such things, that such advisors have a less mediated connection to their own inner workings and the workings of their "backward" cultural landscape. How could Jane and Valentin not find themselves and each other in this idyllic landscape, where one can safely go native for a bit, but from which one can always escape back to the clean and urbane domain of Paris? It's a very old, and very Western political and spatial fabrication.

Still, there are indications that Lelouch is aware that he's trading on some rather tired motifs. On several occasions, the film cuts seamlessly to what appear at first to be present time sequences, but which turn out to be Valentin's dreams. Because they look like the film's flashbacks, they seem keys to the past, and so, the route to the present. A slight ripple begins to creep into the narrative order, as the veracity of each successive flashback becomes increasingly complicated (is this a flashback or is it only a dream?), by the dreams that offer their own "false" counter-narratives.

The result is hardly a complete dismantling of the film's narrative structure (if anything, the end absolutely reaffirms the primacy of the "real"), but Lelouch's wink at the viewer, his gentle undermining of the illusion of the dramatic unity of time and place, playfully tweaks the film's fundamental project of connection. For a film that is more than willing to leap into the deep end of the romantic comedy pool, this may be the most one can ask.

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