Despite a slew of picturesque locations — including a pivotal sequence set in the luxurious Cote d’Azur city — and a trio of gorgeous leading ladies, Daniele Thompson’s It Happened in Saint-Tropez (Des gens qui s’embrassent) is a sloppy, at times cringe-worthy ensemble comedy that gives new meaning to the term “plot contrivance.” Much less convincing than in their 2006 Paris-set Avenue Montaigne or 1999 debut La Buche, the director and co-writer/son Christopher Thompson have concocted a breezy and b.s.-y family affair replete with weddings, funerals, product placements and a veritable jukebox of Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits.
Unfortunately, said hits, which include “My Way,” “Love and Marriage,” and “It Happened in Monterey” (thus the pun of an English-language title), are mostly heard in karaoke versions sung by star Kad Merad (Welcome to the Sticks), in what’s supposed to be a running gag (or perhaps some sort of meta-commentary on Sinatra and the rom-com genre), but really becomes gag-inducing the second, third and fourth time around.
In a way, the joke reflects the diminishing returns of the Thompsons, who started off strong in the late 90s but have definitely been on autopilot lately, especially with 2009’s forgettable Change of Plans. And while that movie wound up scoring over 1.5 million admissions in France, poor reviews and word of mouth may make this one a tougher sell, even if all the Gallic eye-candy could propel it to selected overseas territories and fests (Saint-Tropez premiered Stateside at this year’s edition of ColCoa).
Set over a two-year period, with leaps in time that never feel justified, the narrative follows the plights of two brothers, the bling-swinging gem mogul, Roni (Merad) and the born-again Jewish violinist, Zef (Eric Elmosnino), and those of their respective daughters: the party-hearty art director, Melita (Clara Ponsot), and the angelic, poetry-spouting cellist, Noga (Lou de Laage).
The movie begins with Zef inadvertently killing his wife, Irene (Valerie Bonneton), in New York when he tells her to buy him a pastrami sandwich and she’s hit by a taxi. If that sounds somewhat belabored to you, you might as well walk out here. Because what comes next is a long stream of coincidences and quid pro quos, starting when Irene’s body arrives in Paris in time for Melita’s wedding, and winds up being taken to the reception. Meanwhile, Noga runs into Melita’s fiancé, Sam (Max Boubil), on the train ride over from London, and the two fall head-over-heels in love, with neither of them knowing that he’s about to marry her favorite cousin/b.f.f.
Cut to a year later, where Roni, his bimbo Italian wife (Monica Bellucci) and their Eurotrash friends are living it up on a yacht in Southern France, with Sam on his way over from the airport to rejoin Melita. Well, guess who also happens to be in town, giving a string ensemble concert? And guess what happens when Sam decides to forego the boat party and somehow wanders by?
From the looks of it, you’d think that Saint-Tropez was the size of a small schoolyard, and Thompson makes little effort to make any of this feel credible. Granted, such devices are stock-in-trade for many a comedy, but they’re piled on here like all the Sonia Rykiel shopping bags lining Roni’s vulgar McMansion. It’s as if the filmmakers decided to toss all plausibility into the Mediterranean, and things hardly get better when the action shifts back to Paris and the Place de la Concorde becomes the final setting for another busload of coincidences.
Early on, the movie scores a few laughs during the funeral sequence, and the Roni vs. Zef rivalry offers a somewhat interesting commentary on contemporary French Jews, as well as on the hardships of caring for aging parents—in this case, for the bros’ senile dad (Ivry Gitlis). But the various female characters are especially underwritten, presented as either brainless (Bellucci’s character actually yells “vaffanculo!” in one scene) or, in Noga’s case, as earnest intellectuals with bleeding hearts.
Thankfully, newcomer de Laage (Jappeloup) manages to make Noga halfway endearing, and her performance is ultimately the only thing worth salvaging from what’s otherwise a shallow and sugarcoated shipwreck.
Production companies: Pathe, G Films, TF1 Films Production
Cast: Kad Merad, Monica Bellucci, Eric Elmosnino, Lou de Laage, Clara Ponsot
Director: Daniele Thompson
Screenwriter: Daniele Thompson, Christopher Thompson
Producers: Romain Le Grand, Florian Genetet-Morel
Executive producer: Stephane Riga
Director of photography: Jean-Marc Fabre
Production designer: Michele Abbe
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Costume designer: Catherine Leterrier
Editor: Sylvie Landra
Sales: Pathe International
No rating, 100 minutes