VENUS BEAUTY INSTITUTE (Vénus beauté (institut))

(director/writer: Tonie Marshall; screenwriters: Mario Vernoux/Jacques Audiard; cinematographers: Gérard De Battista/Eric Brun/Stéphane Degnieau; editors: Jean- Jacques Ferran and Eric Thomas; cast: Nathalie Baye (Angèle), Bulle Ogier (Nadine), Samuel Le Bihan (Antoine), Jacques Bonnaffé (Jacques), Mathilde Seigner (Samantha), Claire Nebout (Madame Buisse), Robert Hossein (Aviator, Mr. Lachenay), Audrey Tautou (Marie); Runtime: 105; Lot 47 Films; 1999-France)

“The one thing this film has going for it, is Nathalie Baye in the starring role.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A bittersweet romantic comedy, French style. The one thing this film has going for it, is Nathalie Baye in the starring role. She’s been around as a star ever since her 1973 role in Truffaut’s “Day for Night” and Bob Swaim’s well-received “La Balance” (1982). But it took Godard’s 1979 “Every Man for Himself ” to make her an international star. She has hardly had American recognition because most of her over 50-films were not released in the States. Here she stars as Angèle, an attractive forty-year-old beautician working in the titled Parisian salon. She has a life history of one-night stands because she’s afraid of looking for love and getting dumped on, as she once was when she was more trustful of men. This became a very popular French film winning France’s César awards for best picture, best director, best young actress and best screenplay.

The film opens with Angèle, at a train station café, talking about future plans with her much younger lover, who seems disinterested. When she finishes, he insultingly tells her their affair is over because she has a skinny ass. She’s so hurt by this that she makes a public scene, shouting curses at him and threatening to stalk him. Watching this take place is a young bearded sculptor, Antoine (Le Bihan), who becomes fascinated and stalks her.

In this romantic comedy, the two destined lovers must overcome all the emotional barriers that separate them before their romance could be fully tested. As is the custom in a French film of this kind, love is the most important thing in the world. The film keys in on the working-class girl, who is concerned about aging and being alone. She has to put aside her personal troubles and sell beauty to the varied women and few men clients. Her salon is equipped with the harp sounding chimes as the door is opened and is inundated by blue and pink interior surroundings, and all sorts of beauty products and services for facials, massages, and tanning. There are various other cosmetic services offered as ‘feel good’ treatments. The salon to be used as a metaphor for how women are deceived into thinking they can change their surface appearances and find happiness through something as superficial as cosmetics. It’s also the one place they have for relaxing and living with the lies they tell themselves, as they use this place as a retreat from their real life problems. A Madame Buisse (Claire Nebout) comes in without anything on under her trench coat — and walks around nude before entering the tanning booth.

Angèle is a good listener and offers friendly advice to her pampered clients. She is trusted by the elegant business-oriented salon owner, Nadine (Ogier), and is even encouraged by her to open up her own salon. She forms a workplace friendship with her two other much younger workers. The sexually active Samantha (Seigner) is ready to pack it in and become a nurse, as she keeps falling in and out of love and is not happy where she’s at. While the very young and naive Marie (Tautou-Cesar winner), is content in her job. She is gently wooed by a lonely, rich widowed pilot (Hossein). He had a crippling accident which caused him to have his wife’s thigh skin grafted onto him and that is the reason he comes into the salon daily for treatments to preserve the skin. He gives her jewelry gifts and demands nothing in return, but Marie doesn’t mind pleasing him. Angèle is just a little puzzled why he didn’t choose her.

At first, we don’t know what to make of Antoine, whether he’s a psycho or just a drifter, as his straggly appearance is not appealing to Angèle. When Antoine catches up with her in a coffee shop after stalking her at her salon, he comes on so strong that it’s either a bit frightening or weirdly comical. He tells her: “I can’t stop thinking of you — I love you so much.”

Antoine’s plea for affection is so strong: that he shaves off his beard to look more presentable, treats her to a delicious restaurant meal and refuses a blow job because she’s drunk. Antoine tells her the truth about breaking up with his beautiful young fiancèe, and turns out to be an intelligent and sensitive person; this makes Angèle rethink her attitude about avoiding a true love affair.

In Angèle’s confused state she still clings to her former boyfriend, the facially scarred, so-called loser, Jacques (Bonnaffé), whom she doesn’t love but still needs around to console her. Angèle also shows how she can waltz into a restaurant alone and pick out the most attractive man, albeit a married one, sit down with him, talk nonsense and go for a quick bang shortly afterwards.

The beauty is in the way Baye interprets her character’s many moods and of how she lives with her mental pain, but still is a lively person who is capable of finding what joy there is in her life while also maintaining a friendly, non-competitive relationship with her clients and fellow workers.

It’s a sexy French romp into familiar territory, with characters who don’t tell us much about what’s inside them. But, “Venus…” is able to remain pleasantly atmospheric until the nonsensical melodramatic climax.

There’s nothing new uncovered about relationships here, in fact the main relationship is more absurd than real. But Nathalie Baye is able to carry off this fantasy romance further than it deserved to go, and for that alone it’s worth a look.

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