Lulu in the Nude (Lulu femme nue): Film Review

Arturo Mio
An intriguing if somewhat subdued portrait of one married woman’s unusual break from home.

Karin Viard teams up with writer-director Solveig Anspach for this adaptation of a best-selling French comic book.

Switching gears after the quirky and endearing bobo comedy Queen of Montreuil, Iceland-born, Paris-based filmmaker Solveig Anspach delivers a darker, more emotionally bent effort with her fifth theatrical feature, Lulu in the Nude (Lulu femme nue). Based on the bestselling comic book by Etienne Davodeau, this pared down dramedy stars Karin Viard (Polisse) as an unhappily married woman who takes an extended break from her family, hoping to find some love and laughs in the process. Not quite as funny as it could be, and a bit flat in its second half, Lulu is nonetheless an engaging enough coming-of-middle-age tale to find art house takers abroad, particularly those who can market the film to older audiences.

An opening job interview, where Lulu (Viard) is both turned down and flat-out insulted by a macho HR director, gives us a good idea of what this 40-something mother-of-three is up against: a world where women her age, especially those who never worked professionally, have a hard time finding a steady job, let alone their share of independence.

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When she misses her train back home, Lulu is forced to spend the night in the sleepy seaside town of Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, located in the western Loire valley. When she misses her train again the next day, it’s clear that something is up, and thus begins a rather bizarre, semi-permanent vacation where Lulu ditches her husband, kids and financial security in order to live life on her own terms.

First up is a fling with the gruff but kindhearted Charles (Bouli Lanners, excellent as always), in an offbeat romance that -- despite the presence of Charles’ two wacky brothers (Pascal Demolon, Philippe Rebbot) -- is played less for laughs than to show Lulu finally crawling out of her shell. A scene of her swimming naked -- thus the film’s title -- is the perfect illustration of this, especially since it’s seen from the viewpoint of her sister (Marie Payen, looking like she could actually be Viard’s sister), who stops by to bring Lulu home but realizes she may indeed be happier on the run.

Yet when Lulu spots her sis and daughter (Solene Rigot) spying on her, she hits the road once again, this time winding up as the companion of an elderly woman, Marthe (Claude Gensac), whose purse she tries to snatch in one of the movie’s funnier moments. As the two strike up an odd sort of friendship, the film settles down to become a rather classic, and predictable, two-hander—one that grows slightly tiresome in stretches, even if a subplot involving a young waitress (Nina Meurisse) and a vicious café owner (Corinne Masiero) maintains interest.

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Working once again with co-writer Jean-Luc Gaget, Anspach crafts a solid, if simple, narrative, and the early sections involving Lulu and Charles’ affair provide some of the more captivating sequences. It’s unfortunate, then, that things shift gears soon afterwards, although the writer-director does make some intriguing changes to the source material (originally published in two separate volumes), ultimately making Lulu less a women adrift than a symbol of midlife female empowerment.

Viard, who starred in Anspach’s debut feature, Haut les coeurs! –for which she received the Best Actress César award – does a good job downplaying Lulu’s quandaries, offering up the kind of scaled-back performance she’s perfected in recent films like Cedric Klapisch’s My Piece of the Pie and the underrated On Air. Very much like Catherine Deneuve in last year’s On My Way, yet with less panache, she aptly portrays a provincial French woman thrown into a rather hostile new world.

Returning cinematographer Isabelle Razavet and production designer Stephane Levy (Love is the Perfect Crime) make the coastal locations feel particularly gloomy, using a pale color palate filled with blues and grays, while confining interiors to a few cramped spaces – a trailer, an apartment, a cheap motel room – that underline how much Lulu’s newfound freedom isn’t necessarily a comfortable one.

Opens: Wednesday, Jan. 22 (in France)

Production companies: Arturo Mio, Le Pacte

Cast: Karin Viard, Bouli Lanners, Claude Gensac, Pascal Demolon, Philippe Rebbot, Solene Rigot

Director: Solveig Anspach

Screenwriters: Solveig Anspach, Jean-Luc Gaget, based on the comic book by Etienne Davodeau

Producers: Caroline Roussel, Jean Labadie

Director of photography: Isabelle Razavet

Production designer: Stephane Levy

Costume designer: Marie Le Garrec

Music: Martin Wheeler

Editor: Anne Riegel

Sales agent: Le Pacte

No rating, 89 minutes