'Tokyo Fiancee': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A small-scale story that combines whimsy and poignancy

Belgian director Stefan Liberski's adaptation of the Amelie Nothomb novel plays like "Amelie" meets "Lost in Translation"

A Belgian waif arrives in Japan to fulfill her somewhat absurd goal of "becoming Japanese" in Tokyo Fiancee, director Stefan Liberski’s playful yet poignant adaptation of Amelie Nothomb’s eponymous and semi-autobiographical novel. The main character of the film is a French-speaking pixie called Amelie, so comparisons to her famous namesake from Montmartre are inevitable, though here she’s clearly Lost in Translation. Liberski’s film, however, is more modest than either Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s or Sofia Coppola’s, even if a warm reception at Toronto seems to suggest that a smart boutique distributor could potentially market this to a semi-cosmopolitan hipster crowd.

Amelie (Pauline Etienne), who with her dark hair and short Jean Seberg ‘do looks like a young Juliette Binoche, was born in Japan and lived there until she was five and had to return with her parents to their native Belgium. Now 20 and independent, she has come back to her country of birth with the sole goal of becoming Japanese -- or at least, as Japanese as possible.

To pay for her Japanese lessons, she teaches French as a private tutor, which is how she meets the cute and well-off Rinri (Taichi Inoue), who’s about her age and who wants to improve his French. After an unfortunate incident involving Swiss-fondue cheese, both also literally start to explore each other’s tongues, despite the fact Amelie initially has a weird suspicion that the somewhat secretive Rinri might be a member of the yakuza (he admits he belongs to a secret society, though he can’t tell her more because, well, "it’s a secret").

One of the film’s highlights is a traditional Japanese dinner that Rinri prepares for all the members of the secret society and for Amelie, who is seated at the head of the table. The protagonist feels uncomfortable because her boyfriend, who’s busy in the kitchen, has abandoned her and she slowly realizes that she can’t eat because as the only woman at the table, she’s expected to entertain the men. To remedy the situation, she launches into an endless exposé on -- of all things -- Belgian beer, while the dishes she can’t touch keep piling up in front her. Liberski and cinematographer Hichame Alaouie wisely never cuts to a closeup, letting everything play out in a much more suggestive longshot, which shows Amelie as a tiny presence at the end of a table surrounded by men, who, because of the laws of perspective, seem to tower over her.

Like elsewhere, the scene’s played in sparkly light-comedy mode but also has a darker undercurrent, which here signals Amelie’s realization that being Japanese is not only a question of adapting oneself to a new country and language but that it occasionally also means submitting oneself to codes that make no sense to a foreigner (surely, in Belgium, the idea of a couple entertaining together would not mean they’re separated for the entire meal and neither of them manages to eat anything -- though thankfully Rinri has a sexy proposal for desert).   

Nothomb’s novel was inspired by on her own experiences in Japan and partially overlaps with her earlier book Fear and Trembling, which was filmed by Alain Corneau in 2003 with Sylvie Testud as Amelie, a role for which she’d win France’s Oscar equivalent, the Cesar. Etienne makes her Amelie a tad more immature and fragile but also more open to the simple pleasures of life, often evidenced by her squeal-like expressions of guileless wonder over small things such as the strange (from a Western point of view) kitchen appliances found in the home of Rinri’s parents.

Liberski, who also adapted the screenplay, manages to get quite some comic mileage out of the story’s culture-clash aspects, which look at differences between Belgium, France and Quebec but, as could be expected, even more between the Occident and the Orient. The combination of Amelie’s general naiveté and her genuine curiosity about all things Japanese mostly ensure that these moments remain grounded in recognizable behavior and attitudes rather than any kind of negative stereotyping, even if a few stylized scenes in which Amelie imagines various fates for herself feel facile rather than psychologically illuminating.

However, though the film’s serio-comic tone is quite consistent, the underlying dramatic arc is somewhat wobbly, with Amelie’s struggles with her life in Japan in general and with Rinri in particular not always fully legible. Two moments in particular, in which the Belgian protagonist flees from the busy capital and into nature, suggest that her character needs distance and some time to think, but the buildup to these sequences feels rushed, it is never exactly clear what it is she needs to think about and in both instances, the pay-off feels extreme.

Though lithe of frame, Etienne, who earlier impressed as the almost-novice in The Nun and can next be seen in Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden, fills the entire film with her sprightly spirit and warmth, also heard in her voiceover, and who manages to be sexy and down-to-earth at once. When she finally leaves Japan, it is quietly heartbreaking and not because, in a somewhat needless contemporary update of the material, she's fleeing from the Fukishima disaster but simply because her interactions with her surroundings are what made her character so interesting. Etienne also has convincing chemistry with Ioune, who fuses his character’s charms and aloofness into a credible whole.

Shot on location, the film was clearly a modest production, though since it tells a small-scale story that thrives on the charm of its characters, there is no sense that compromises had to be made anywhere. Claire Dubien’s colorful costumes deserve a special shout-out, as they provide Amelie with the getups that allow her to be more daring, mature and conspicuous than she probably really is.  

Production companies: Versus Production, Forum Films, Les Films du Worso

Cast: Pauline Etienne, Taichi Inoue, Julie Lebreton, Alice De Lencquesaing

Writer-Director: Stefan Liberski, screenplay based on the novel by Amelie Nothomb

Producers: Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart

Director of photography: Hichame Alaouie

Production designer: Sophie Anquez

Costume designer: Claire Dubien

Editor: Frederique Broos

Music: Casimir Liberski

Sales: Films Distribution


No rating, 100 minutes