'Love at Second Sight' ('Mon inconnue'): Film Review

Courtesy of Mars Distribution
A clever if shallow comedy of remarriage.

French writer-director Hugo Gelin’s latest feature stars Francois Civil and Josephine Japy as a couple reconnecting in a parallel universe.

A craftily conceived mashup of 50 First Dates, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and other notable rom-coms involving love, memory and dubious quantum theories, Love at Second Sight (Mon inconnue) is an enjoyable if rather superficial third feature from French writer-director Hugo Gelin (Just Like Brothers).

Slickly made and starring the likeable duo of Francois Civil and Josephine Japy, the film follows a best-selling YA writer, Raphael, who wakes up in a parallel universe to find out he’s turned into a total loser, while his wife, Olivia, has become a famous pianist engaged to another man. In order to get his old life back, Raphael needs to somehow make Olivia fall in love with him all over again — a twist that places this movie squarely in the subgenre of “remarriage” comedies, such as The Philadelphia Story and Adam’s Rib, that were championed by the late philosopher Stanley Cavell.

Love at Second Sight ultimately falls far short of those classics in terms of what it says about modern relationships, even if it’s a clever and occasionally funny ride backed by a strong cast. Released wide in France by Mars Distribution and other territories by StudioCanal, it won’t reach the $45 million box-office take of Gelin’s 2016 dramedy Two Is a Family, although there may be enough of a hook here to warrant a remake or two.

A breakneck opening reveals how Raphael (Civil) and Olivia (Japy) met all the way back in high school and immediately fell in love. Both were creative outcasts, with Raphael penning speculative fiction during class and Olivia practicing piano in an abandoned music room. Ten years later, Raphael’s grown into an author with his own blockbuster YA franchise, while Olivia’s music career has gone nowhere. They are married and live in a swank apartment overlooking the Seine, but they are not happy.

And then, well: It would take Albert Einstein or one of his disciples to explain what exactly happens next, but in essence Raphael wakes up one day in a world where he and Olivia never actually met, where instead of becoming the French Suzanne Collins or James Dashner he’s turned into a middling junior high school teacher, and where his only major activity outside teaching is competing in semi-pro ping pong matches.

Gelin, who penned the script with co-writers Igor Gotesman (Five) and Benjamin Parent, gets plenty of comic mileage out of the early sequences where we see Raphael comprehending, and then adjusting to, his new life. The viewer, meanwhile, gets some pleasure out of seeing the hotshot writer get his comeuppance.

Many of the film’s more hilarious scenes involve the friendship between Raphael and his high school bestie, Felix (Benjamin Lavernhe), who, like our fallen hero, hasn’t really amounted to much over the past 10 years. But unlike Raphael, Felix is perfectly happy where he is in life, and the push and pull between the two of them adds a satisfying layer to the plot.

Felix also helps Raphael in his grand scheme to win back Olivia, who is now a star solo pianist in a long-term relationship with her agent and husband-to-be, Marc (Amaury de Crayencour). The idea, as far-fetched as it seems, is that if Raphael can manage to convince Olivia to fall for him all over again, then the universe will revert back to how it was before, with Raphael still a rich and famous author and Olivia the woman who gave up her career out of love.

Things won’t exactly work out as planned, and, in the end, Gelin seems to be saying something about the sacrifices people need to make in order to keep their relationships afloat. And yet, in the director’s shallow and frankly old-fashioned version of how couples function nowadays, Raphael and Olivia can never exist on equal footing: It’s either him or her, his career or hers, and there’s no way they can “pursue happiness” together, to paraphrase the title of Cavell’s book. (The him-or-her quandary was used in a similar way in La La Land.)

It’s a failing of Love at Second Sight that it never imagines another parallel universe, like the one inhabited by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey in Adam's Rib, or by Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, where members of the opposite sex strive for professional and personal goals at the same time, however difficult and comically auspicious that may be. You get the feeling that Gelin worked out the high concept of his movie without really considering what it all meant, especially in the present day. And as much as his film toys with concepts like bending the space-time continuum and other futuristic ideas, in terms of equality it feels like a step backwards.

Production companies: Zazi Films, Mars Cinema, Mars Films, Chapka Films, France 3 Cinema, C8 Films
Cast: Francois Civil, Josephine Japy, Benjamin Lavernhe, Edith Scob, Camille Lellouche, Amaury de Crayencour
Director: Hugo Gelin
Screenwriters: Hugo Gelin, Igor Gotesman, Benjamin Parent
Producers: Laetitia Galitzine, Hugo Gelin, Stephane Celerier, Valerie Garcia
Director of photography: Nicolas Massart
Production designer: Stephane Rozenbaum
Costume designer: Isabelle Mathieu
Editor: Virginie Bruant
Composer: Sage
Sales: StudioCanal

In French
118 minutes