Friday, January 10, 2014

Le Sauvage (1975)

          The sleeky entertaining French farce Le Sauvage is like a Gallic spin on a Blake Edwards movie. Fast, funny, sexy, surprising, and touching, the picture matches two iconic stars—breathtaking Catherine Deneuve and suave Yves Montand—with masterful storytelling by director/co-writer Jean-Paul Rappeneau. Le Sauvage is frothy entertainment at its best, exactly because it’s not frothy in every scene; Rappeneau realizes that audiences need moments of sanity in order to care about characters when things get crazy.
          Here’s the short version of the plot. Frenchwoman Nelly (Deneuve) is in Venezuela to marry her hotheaded Italian fiancé, Vittori (Luigi Vannucchi). Just before the wedding, she changes her mind, so she runs away and seeks shelter in a hotel, where an altruistic stranger, Martin (Montand), intervenes when Vittori breaks into Nelly’s hotel room and tries to drag her home. Escaping the hotel, Nelly tracks down her former lover, an American named Alex (Tony Roberts), for help leaving the country. Vitorri finds Nelly at Alex’s place, too, so she flees again—taking Alex’s prized Toulouse-Lautrec painting with her so she can sell it for traveling money. More chases and close encounters ensue, until Nelly finds her perfect hideaway on Martin’s private island, even though Martin has no interest in visitors. Unlikely romance blooms as various forces converge on the island, some pursuing Nelly and some pursuing Martin.
          It’s all completely outlandish, but Rappeneau presents events in such a methodical way that the story never spins out of control. Quite to the contrary, the narrative has a comfortable rhythm of intimate scenes and noisy set pieces. Rappeneau also takes full advantage of a series of dynamic locations, with scenes set in France and New York in addition to the various South American locales. Montand suits this material perfectly, his macho energy leavened by poetic sensitivity; Vannucchi is wonderful as the maniac who’ll stop at nothing to recover his runaway bride; and it’s a kick to see Woody Allen regular Roberts smoothly delivering lines in French.
          Yet the whole piece revolves around Deneuve, since only a woman of her exquisite beauty could support a plot predicated on men chasing her across the globe and tolerating her quixotic behavior. While never disengaging from her familiar screen persona of chilly sophistication, Deneuve lightens up considerably here, and it’s impossible to say enough about how ravishing she looks. Even when scampering around the island wearing nothing but one of Martin’s shirts, she’s mesmerizing. That’s why the main gimmick of the love story—the notion that Martin finds Nelly highly resistible because she’s such a pain in the ass—is so fun. The ending is never in doubt, but the path to the ending is filled with delightful detours. Plus, befitting the analogy to Blake Edwards’ work, Rappeneau stages physical-comedy scenes with the artistry and grace of a choreographer. So even though Le Sauvage isn’t about anything, it’s consistently playful, vibrant, and warmhearted.

Le Sauvage: GROOVY

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