Dinner parties are usually quite enjoyable in real life. But in the movies they tend to not go very well, as demonstrated by the disastrous gatherings featured in the recent Dinner With Beatriz and The Party. Nothing quite as dramatic occurs at the upscale soiree depicted in the new comedy directed by Amanda Sthers (You’ll Miss Me), which is a shame since the labored Madame fails to rise to the level of sophisticated social satire to which it aspires.
The film’s stars are Toni Collette and Harvey Keitel, but the proceedings are stolen right out from under their noses by supporting players Michael Smiley and particularly Rossy de Palma. The latter, familiar from the many Pedro Almodovar movies in which she’s prominently appeared, nearly manages to save the pic.
Set in Paris (which at least provides the opportunity for many gorgeous scenic locations), the story concerns wealthy married couple Bob (Keitel) and the younger Anne (Collette), who have recently moved to a beautiful new manor house. Unfortunately, the couple is not quite as wealthy as they appear, as Bob has fallen on hard times, which he’s keeping from his glamorous second wife.
Anne’s plan to host a lavish dinner party for their upscale friends becomes upended by the unexpected arrival of Bob’s son Steven (Tom Hughes), a novelist suffering from writer’s block. Aghast at the idea that the table will now be unluckily seating 13 people, Anne orders their longtime maid Maria (De Palma) to don a fancy borrowed dress and pretend to be a Spanish noblewoman.
The subterfuge works better than expected, with Maria, overcoming her initial shyness, turning into the life of the party. She particularly wows the man sitting next to her, David (Smiley), a British art dealer who finds her natural warmth and bubbliness intoxicating. Toni watches their flirtation with growing horror and becomes even more unhinged afterwards when David and Maria become romantically involved. It does inspire her, however, to try spicing up her own sexually starved marriage by dressing up in a sexy maid’s outfit and attempting to seduce her husband.
The Cinderella-like premise proves engaging at first, but director/co-screenwriter Sthers fails to develop it in sufficiently amusing or provocative fashion. Anne’s social snobbery renders her attempts to sabotage Maria’s happiness unpleasant rather than amusing, with the result that we’re unable to feel any sympathy for her own unhappiness. Keitel’s character registers as little more than a cipher, and even the besotted new lovers fail to sustain our interest. None of this would matter as much if the writing were sharper, but lines like “vacuum cleaning is the new Pilates” aren’t exactly Oscar Wilde.
Much like the way her character enlivens the dinner party, De Palma infuses the film with whatever life it has. The statuesque Spanish actress has such an arresting screen presence that it’s no wonder Almodovar has made her his muse. Her comic flair and unusual sexiness is on such display here that Maria’s appeal to the straitlaced Brit seems perfectly natural. Smiley is equally engaging, infectiously conveying his character’s newfound delight. If only the movie had revolved around them.
Production company: LGM Cinema
Distributor: Blue Fox Entertainment
Cast: Toni Collette, Harvey Keitel, Rossy de Palma, Michael Smiley, Tom Hughes
Director: Amanda Sthers
Screenwriters: Amanda Sthers, Matthew Robbins
Producers: Cyril Colbeau-Justin, Jean-Baptiste DuPont, Alain Pancrazi, Lauren Bacri
Director of photography: Regis Blondeau
Production designer: Herald Nejar
Editor: Nicolas Chaudeurge
Composer: Matthieu Gonet
Costume designer: Charlotte Betaillole
Casting: Michael Laguens