Informed that he has “no friends,” fervent antiques dealer François (Daniel Auteuil) is stunned. What can this mean, he wonders, that his business partner, Catherine (Julie Gayet), would be so rude as to accuse him of such social retardation. After all, he protests, before an inadvertent audience of fellow restaurant diners, he has a best friend, and she can meet him — by the end of the month. Catherine agrees to a bet: if he produces no such person, he must give her a 5th century Roman vase he has just purchased, at no small cost to their business account (200,000 euros, to be exact).
He’s not sure why he bought the vase (decorated with a scene of Achilles and Patroclus) or why it’s suddenly important to him: on hearing that it once held the tears of a man who lost his best friend, François is compelled to outbid wealthy television producer Étienne Delamotte (Henri Garcin) for it. When he makes the bet with Catherine at the start of Patrice Leconte’s Mon meilleur ami (My Best Friend), François reasons that someone he’s met will count as a friend. Hunched over the dining room table at his apartment, François all but ignores his girlfriend as he makes a list of fellow dealers and childhood acquaintances, none of whom, he soon finds, wants anything to do with him. (The girlfriend, by the way, goes home that night, promising to wait for his eventual coming to his sense, her part reduced to sad eyes and unbelievable patience.)
The film suggests Catherine is right: François is a self-important twit, unable to grasp basic notions of generosity, gentleness, or empathy. He doesn’t remember the girlfriend she’s introduced to him (or even the fact that she’s lesbian), he’s alienated his daughter Louise (Julie Durand), who’s on her way to study for a year in Cambodia; and he’s annoyed his colleagues (one fellow corrects his assertion that “Good reckoning s make good friends,” with “Good reckonings make good reckonings”). He’s also worried, having recently attended a client’s funeral, where he found himself in a church with just six other mourners, including the dead man’s mother. What if his funeral is similarly forlorn? What if he does, as Catherine observes, only “like things,” not people?
Advised by a grade school companion that he was “a smug little shit then,” François concludes he can learn how to manage this friendship thing. His efforts to educate himself prove embarrassing: at a bookstore, the clerk yells out the title he seeks, How to Make Friends, as other shoppers glance over with pity in their eyes. Determined to beat this thing, François lights on a cab driver, Bruno (Dany Boon), whom he’s seen interacting affably and apparently easily with others — including Louise, whom François perceives as impossibly grumpy and age-appropriately insubordinate. Desperate, François asks Bruno to teach him how to make friends.
It’s a daunting task, perhaps especially for Bruno, who, for all his affability, is also lonely. Recently separated from his wife, he still imagines a reconciliation, lives a block from his parents, and spends most of his time alone (while you see other cabbies gathered together, laughing and joking). While it’s obvious that François and Bruno are fated to be friends, their route is circuitous, part sitcom, part melodrama. François’ anxious resolve (he becomes fixed on the “three S’s,” learning to appear sociable, smiling, and sincere) makes him an unlikely friend to anyone, but Bruno’s conviviality is soon revealed to be a performance as well. He works so hard to be liked by so many, he confesses, that he is also without a “best friend.” Awww.
The cue that they are indeed made for each other, despite their plain class difference and opposite affects, is François and Bruno’s shared passion for trivia: François loves being right, and Bruno, an Alex Trebek fan, aspires to be a game show whiz, though he’s also subject to severe nervousness, to the point that his repeated auditions for the TV show, Réponses à tout (Know It All), leave him stammering and perspiring, unable to provide answers he knows as soon as he walks out the door. (This plot point leads to an eventual appearance on the French Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, with requisite theatrics, big music, and frequent cuts to over-invested TV viewers.)
As they fumble their way toward their own friendship, Bruno and François display a closeness that’s both warm and unusual, without resorting to the sort of crass homophobic jokes that characterize such manly intimacies in US movies. On one level, their naïveté regarding social niceties allows exchanges and nuances that would be much harder for veteran masculine posturers. Not unlike the ingenuousness of the much younger protagonists in the upcoming US gross-out comedy Superbad, they’re so focused on immediate, tangible, ostensibly comedic goals (here, winning the bet and performing on the game show), that they knock past expectations of male bonding, finding other, clumsier but also less obnoxious ways to connect.
It helps, of course, that Auteuil’s performance is so subtle, selfless, and, despite the role, substantive. François’ mix of canny self-interest and utter artlessness is frequently contrived and tiresome (Bruno wonders, “You pay to make people happy?”, and François, apparently this oblivious, asks back, “Don’t you?”), but Auteuil is still beguiling.