Romantics Anonymous (Les émotifs anonymes), 78 mins, rated M, opens 19 April 2012 and The Deep Blue Sea, 98 mins, rated M, opens 5 April 2012


(This is my review as it appeared in The NSW Law Society Journal, April 2012 issue).

This month we review two romantic films that are polar opposites.

First, a French comedy: Romantics Anonymous, co-written and directed by Jean-Pierre Améris, who has been writing and directing in France since 1994.

The film’s English title makes it sound more saccharine than it really is. The French title – Les émotifs anonymes – is closer to the truth. When the word “émotif” is used in dialogue, subtitles translate it as “emotional”, which is more accurate, since this is a film about two people who are so anxious about social interaction that they cannot cope in society. He sweats profusely, and she faints. He hides his phobia with aloofness, and she with a kind of breathless over-excitation.

He is Jean-René, who owns a chocolate-making business. She is Angelique, a seriously talented chocolatière. Angelique is too shy to admit her talents. So even though she topped her chocolate-making course, she takes a sales job with Jean-René’s firm. Angelique’s anxieties make her ill-equipped for the position, but she bravely takes it on.

When it comes to talking chocolate, however, both these misfits feel at ease. This leads to an attraction between them, which would probably have lead nowhere, if it weren’t for Jean René’s shrink ordering him to ask someone out to dinner, by way of therapy.

This produces an hilarious set-piece in a restaurant that involves stilted conversation, profuse sweating, and multiple trips to the bathroom. It was here that I began to feel that this film is a cut above the standard Rom-Com – even a French one. There’s a touch of the madcap reminiscent of the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks, and even Billy Wilder. The two characters have flaws that prevent them from functioning in society – let alone falling in love – and yet we know they will.

Isabelle Carré as Angelique is fresh, sweet and funny. Belgian actor Benoit Poelvoorde (Coco Before Chanel, 2009) is a sad clown with superb comic timing. Both have a warmth and humanity that’s very convincing. Another reason the film rings so true is that the director Améris suffered from crippling social anxiety when he was young. In fact, he came to love cinema precisely because it enabled him to experience great emotions in the dark, alone, with no one looking at him.

The background of chocolate-making is crucial. As Angelique explains during her job interview, it’s the bitterness that defines chocolate, tempering its sweetness. In Romantics Anonymous, the reality of the character’s anxieties and the undercurrent of absurdity dilute the film’s romanticism, and leave the viewer feeling both satisfied and nourished.

At the other end of the romantic spectrum is The Deep Blue Sea, directed by Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives, 1988 and The Long Day Closes, 1992). It is set in the early 1950s in a London that is still reeling from the Blitz, and suffering from post-war privation.

Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play of the same name might seem an odd choice to adapt as a film in the 21st century. It concerns the choice made by a married woman, Tessa (Rachel Weisz who won an Best Actress Oscar for her performance in The Constant Gardener from 2005), when she falls in love with a much younger ex-RAF flyer. In those days, the idea of a woman leaving her husband for an unstable younger lover (especially when her husband is a cultured and respected judge) was quite shocking. In that era, the disgrace the woman and her husband would suffer would have been a huge factor in the decision.

But the one thing that does not change from age to age is the nature of love – and that’s what’s explored in The Deep Blue Sea. Rachel Weisz is both luminous and heartbreaking as the woman whose tragedy is that she adores her lover (Tom Hiddleston) so much more than he can love her. Yet, knowing this, she still chooses love over security and stability.

With a beautiful music score that spans both Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 14, and Anytime as crooned by Eddie Fisher, and a stunning tableau of a sing-along in the underground during the Blitz, this memento mori will surely have you reaching for your handkerchief.