More than a decade since ‘Amélie’, Audrey Tautou remains a captivating yet elusive screen presence. That piercing gaze and pouty upper lip give her the air of a woman not easily impressed, suggesting a self-contained strength at odds with the melting romcom roles she plays. Perhaps that’s why ‘Coco Before Chanel’ remains her best work. But in this instance novelist-turned-director David Foenkinos, working with his brother Stéphane, makes an intriguing stab at fitting her persona into his story of a grief-stricken widow pondering the possibility of loving once more.
After an opening chapter sketches the delirious union of Tautou’s Nathalie and her ill-fated hubby (Pio Marmaï), we get to the nub of the drama. She responds to his tragic loss by burying herself in work, remaining determinedly aloof in the process. Until, that is, one fateful day when pent-up feelings manifest themselves in kissing schlumpy Swedish co-worker Markus (François Damiens). He’s smitten, of course, but can she really fall for this balding, ungainly, nonentity of a man?
Needless to say, male sympathies will be on the side of the unprepossessing but sweet-natured Scandinavian. Yet the movie fails the test of any romcom by never convincing us he has what it takes to make her happiness complete, especially since she’s no soft touch. Tautou herself is more convincing at tensile reserve than in subsequent story developments, which generate only moderate chemistry.
Somehow though, the film remains more charming than it has any right to be – possibly because its tendency to switch back and forth from whimsical cuteness to troublingly genuine emotions keeps us alert throughout. It never hits the target, but its sincerity is surely preferable to the machine-tooled slickness of Hollywood models.