‘Un Plus Une’: TIFF Review

Un plus une - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Not much more than the sum of its gossamer-thin parts, but alluring nonetheless

Claude Lelouch’s first India-set feature stars Jean Dujardin as a film composer who falls for a diplomat’s wife

Charismatic leads and a genuine sense of travelogue discovery spark the latest romance from Claude Lelouch, his first foray into India. As its title suggests, Un Plus Une finds the French director as in love with love as he’s ever been. Jean Dujardin and Elsa Zylberstein are persuasive as a man and a woman drawn together on a quest that’s as earthbound as it is spiritual.

Though the film never generates dramatic urgency and its emotional impact is slight, it skims along with a pleasingly off-center sense of mystery in its main characters, and dark flashes in its portrait of the unbearable lightness of being. Given The Artist star Dujardin’s Oscar-heightened profile, the film, receiving its world premiere at Toronto, could prompt more interest in North America than have the helmer’s recent outings.

Dujardin delivers a perfectly pitched turn as the jaunty Antoine Abeilard, a famous film composer who travels to India at the behest of a director (Rahul Vohra) to score a Bollywood romance based on an incident that captured the national imagination: A young thief and a dancer met under less than auspicious circumstances, and he risked jail to help her.

By contrast, there’s no sense of risk about the self-satisfied Antoine, who offhandedly describes the project as a boring “movie for festivals” when chatting with the pilots on his international flight (a scene shot in an actual midflight cockpit). Once he lands, he sets about avoiding the marriage proposal of his younger pianist girlfriend (Alice Pol), and quickly finds a distraction in Zylberstein’s Anna Hamon, wife of the French ambassador (Christophe Lambert) in Mumbai. She regales him at a VIP reception with talk of dharma and manages to hold his interest even after confessing to reading The Secret.

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Her emotional nakedness, beautifully played by Zylberstein, compels Antoine to catch up with her after she embarks by train on a “fertility pilgrimage.” She and her husband, a man she speaks of with unfaltering admiration but no real passion, have been trying to conceive a child, and she’s hopeful that participating in certain ritual gatherings will do the trick.

With his studio work done and his girlfriend’s arrival from France a few days off, Antoine travels with Anna to the holy city of Benares, and then south to commune with Amma, aka the “hugging saint.” Maybe he’ll find a cure for his troubling headaches, but mainly he’s along for the ride because he’s enchanted, despite himself.

The scenes with Amma, shot docu-style by cinematographer Robert Alazraki via unobtrusive telephoto, capture the two performers’ first contact with the holy woman, who had agreed to be filmed but didn’t know who among that day’s seekers were movie stars. Their responses to her — his playful, hers emotional — reveal plenty about their characters. Elsewhere, through a range of settings including a striking Ganges sequence, all of it shot handsomely but without fuss, the leads convey their characters’ ease with each other but also the charged sexual tension just beneath the surface.

Lelouch and his cowriter, Valerie Perrin, stir things up with dark, sensual dreams that disturb the travelers’ daylight hours, as well as flashbacks to how they each met their partner. There’s also a sweet backstory on Antoine’s recently established relationship with the father he never knew, a down-and-out busker well played by Venantino Venantini.

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The pieces, which contain several thematic nods to Lelouch’s And Now … Ladies and Gentlemen, don’t quite coalesce, although the film is far more cohesive than that 2002 feature. A confrontation in which the characters, against their better instincts, become self-conscious players in what Antoine calls a “bedroom farce,” feels forced and anticlimactic. Had there been more fire in the main characters’ existing relationships, there might have been more danger in their growing closeness.

Even so, the story casts a certain spell with its touches of movie love, its elegant score by frequent Lelouch collaborator Francis Lai, and especially its central performances. As Westerners who are self-absorbed in different ways, Zylberstein and Dujardin spar intriguingly, openhearted and humbled, broken and mending.

Production companies: Les Films 13, Davis Films, JD Prod, France 2 Cinéma
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Elsa Zylberstein, Christophe Lambert, Alice Pol, Rahul Vohra, Shriya Pilgaonkar, Abhishek Krishnan, Venantino Venantini, Amma, Kalki Koechlin
Director: Claude Lelouch
Screenwriter: Claude Lelouch, in collaboration with Valerie Perrin
Producers: Samuel Hadida, Victor Hadida, Marc Dujardin, Claude Lelouch
Executive producer: Jean-Paul de Vidas
Director of photography: Robert Alazraki
Costume designer: Christel Birot
Editor: Stephane Mazalaigue
Music: Francis Lai
Sales agents: Mister Smith Entertainment (international), Metropolitan Filmexport (U.S.)
No rating, 114 minutes