'French Women' ('Sous les jupes des filles'): Film Review

Luc Roux
Cherchez la femme.

Audrey Dana (“Welcome”) directs and stars in this ensemble distaff comedy, which also features Vanessa Paradis, Isabelle Adjani and Laetitia Casta.

PARIS -- Popular French comedies tend to lean toward the misogynistic side, with female parts relegated to the Unhappy Wife, Oversexed Mistress or Ball-Busting Businesswoman. Combining all of those stereotypes, plus many more, into a single movie, actress turned director Audrey Dana offers up a rather botched ensemble effort in French Women (Sous les jupes des filles) -- a film that’s ostensibly meant to turn such cliches on their head, but only winds up bolstering them while providing little to laugh about.

That said, an energetic cast of stars, including Vanessa Paradis, Geraldine Nakache, Sylvie Testud and Isabelle Adjani, helps to make this collective affair occasionally watchable, if overlong at nearly two hours -- although such a running time hasn’t deterred local audiences from hoisting these gals to a number two slot at the box office. Overseas interest will be confined to Francophone fests and territories.

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Weaving a network narrative that’s closer to a TV sketch comedy than to a veritable screenplay, Dana and co-writers Murielle Magellan (A Man and his Dog) and Raphaelle Desplechin (On Tour) introduce us to a coterie of 30-to-40 something Parisians, each of them experiencing their own early or mid-life crisis.

They include Rose (Paradis), a malicious CEO who realizes she doesn’t have a single friend; Ysis (Nakache), an overtired mother-of-three who gets the hots for her bodacious babysitter (Alice Taglioni); Sam (Testud), a snarky gynecologist who learns she has breast cancer; and Jo (Dana), a mistress-in-heat who opens the film while menstruating, her secretions digitally floating through the air to form the French title (which translates to Beneath the Skirts of Girls).

Subtlety is clearly not Dana’s forte, and while she wrings laughs out of a few scenes -- especially those involving Nakache, as well as a desperate housewife rant that’s perfectly delivered by Marina Hands (Lady Chatterley)  -- she indulges in a series of overwrought gags that bring chuckles the first time around, but hardly the second, third or fourth. This includes a repeated joke that has model-turned-actress Laetitia Casta belching and farting whenever she crosses paths with her paramour (Pascal Elbe), and a plotline involving a wacky bus driver (Julie Ferrier) who develops a case of Tourette’s syndrome that can only be controlled by excessive lovemaking.

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This is hardly a French Bridesmaids, even if the cast of eleven stars does their best to show how much these girls just want to have fun, often at the expense of our own patience. (This particularly holds true for Adjani’s scenes, which are downright embarrassing.) It’s also a far cry from another femme ensemble piece, Maiwenn’s All About Actresses, which mines similar themes through the prism of vanity and stardom, offering up a clever commentary on what it means to be a woman in today’s media-obsessed world.

And while Dana – who’s acted in films by Bertrand Blier and Claude Lelouch -- clearly isn’t trying to direct a feminist manifesto here, she doesn’t necessarily help the cause by featuring so many exaggerated scenes and characters, even if her aim is to show that her women can be just as neurotic and sex-obsessed as the men of Judd Apatow. If only she could make them as funny.

Tech credits are garish and a bit sloppy, while a soundtrack composed of uniquely distaff tunes feels like a running gag that loses its charm after the first reel.

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Production companies: Fidelite Films, Wild Bunch, M6 Films
Cast: Vanessa Paradis, Geraldine Nakache, Laetitia Casta, Isabelle Adjani, Sylvie Testud, Audrey Dana
Director: Audrey Dana
Screenwriters: Audrey Dana, Murielle Magellan Raphaelle Desplechin
Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Director of photography: Vincent Mathias
Production designer: Farncois Emmanuelli
Costume designer: Eve Marie Arnault
Editor: Sandro Lavezzi
Music: Marc Chouarain
Sales agent: TF1 International
No rating, 112 minutes