'The Together Project' ('L'Effet aquatique'): Cannes Review

The Together Project - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A sweet and sincere French-Icelandic rom-com.

The new comedy from late French-Icelandic filmmaker Solveig Anspach finds a man pretending he can't swim in order to get closer to the lifeguard he loves.

It's not often that an indie rom-com is actually cute rather than cutesy, but The Together Project (L'Effet aquatique), a French-Icelandic trifle about a man who goes to genuinely absurd lengths to win over the woman he loves, is such a movie.

Directed by Solveig Anspach (who passed away at 54 last year after a battle with cancer) and premiering in Cannes' Directors' Fortnight sidebar, this is the final entry, following Back Soon and Queen of Montreuil, in her trilogy of comedies featuring the same handful of loopy, lonely characters. One needn't have seen the first two films to be charmed by The Together Project, which, minor as it is, feels pleasingly hand-crafted rather than plucked from the assembly line.

The movie also finds Anspach and writing partner Jean-Luc Gaget toning down their usual whimsy, which in Queen of Montreuil veered at times toward hive-inducing (in one scene, the heroine ended up in the bathtub with a seal). The Together Project is quirky — half of it takes place at an international congress of pool lifeguards, after all — but also anchored by a sturdy screwball plot and some amusing dialogue.

In the opening scene, tall, lanky crane operator Samir (Samir Guesmi) spots Agathe (Florence Loiret-Caille) in a café, expertly rebuffing a man's advances. It's love at first sight (both characters appeared, but never crossed paths, in Queen of Montreuil). When Samir learns Agathe is a lifeguard and swimming instructor at a local pool, he promptly puts on his Speedo and signs up for lessons, claiming he doesn't know how to swim.

Predictably, just as Agathe is warming to Samir, she discovers he's been lying and writes him off as another sketchy dude trying to get her into bed. But when she travels to Iceland for the aforementioned pool lifeguard convention, he follows her there, determined to prove his worthiness.

Some rather bizarre circumstances conspire to result in Samir posing as a lifeguard from Israel. It's the film's one real risk — a French-Arab character pretending to be Israeli at an international event is a booby-trapped comic conceit if ever there was one — but it pays off; Samir's haltingly improvised speech about why pools are so important to Israeli-Palestinian peace is a left-field, laugh-out-loud highlight.

It's also a perfect illustration of how far Anspach's gently wacky, blithely good-natured sensibility goes toward keeping things off-kilter, regardless of how standard her set-ups and themes may be. In a world of big-screen comedies where you generally can see every beat, gag or punchline coming a mile away, that's no small feat.

The third act of The Together Project devolves into silliness, some of it mildly fun (Samir's bout of possibly feigned amnesia), some of it tiresome (a surfeit of Icelandic zaniness, led by Didda Jonsdottir as Agathe's hippie-dippie pal Anna). But the filmmakers pull things together for a low-key swoon of a romantic climax set in a hot spring.

Anspach stages her hijinks nimbly, and gets just the right balance of goofiness and sincerity from her stars. Loiret-Caille is a winning, quintessentially French mix of warmth and irascibility, while Guesmi, with his handsome-hangdog face and dazed, love-drunk expression, makes a distinctive and appealing leading man. The two have a sweet, sexy chemistry — the essential, though so often sorely lacking, ingredient in romantic comedies.

The Together Project is very slight (even at 83 minutes it feels a bit long), but its utter and complete lack of cynicism makes the film, in its own miniature way, sort of extraordinary. Given Anspach's death, this resolutely sunny work also carries an inevitable undercurrent of melancholy — and leaves you with a twinge of longing for all the movies we'll never get to see from her.

Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)
An Ex Nihilo and Zik Zak Productions production
Director: Solveign Anspach
Writers: Solveig Anspach, Jean-Luc Gaget
Producers: Jean-Luc Gaget, Skuli Fr. Malmquist, Patrick Sobelman
Cast: Forence Loiret Caille, Samir Guesmi, Philippe Rebbot, Esteban, Olivia Cote, Didda Jonsdottir
Cinematographer: Isabelle Razavet
Editor: Anne Riegel
Production designer: Marie Le Garrec
Costume designer: Anne Blanchard
Music: Martin Wheeler
83 minutes