The screenwriting duo of actors Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri first came to prominence on the French stage, and expanded their recognition to the big screen through the good efforts of Alain Resnais, for whom they adapted Alan Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges as the Smoking/No Smoking diptych, and later wrote the scintillating, Dennis Potter-esque On Connaît la chanson (Same Old Song). The duo parlayed their success as writers with Ms. Jaoui moving into the director's chair in 2000 with Le Goût des autres (The Taste of Others), setting a pattern of engaging, urbane, adult ensemble comedies - but one where the sense of diminishing returns was pretty much inescapable as each new film seemed to become just more of the same.

     Au bout du conte is the team's attempt at refreshing the formula by injecting a more whimsical, fanciful tone, playfully throwing around the conventions of fairy tales and attempting a more colourful, less staid handling. Though again an ensemble comedy set in contemporary Paris, its centre is a tale of puppy love between Laura (Agathe Bonitzer) and Sandro (Arthur Dupont), whose meet cute in a costume party reverses the Cinderella motif: he's the one who loses his shoe upon leaving in a hurry to pick up his mother from work. But her relationship also echoes the tale of the Red Riding Hood, as Laura goes to visit her aunt Marianne (Ms. Jaoui) only to meet the Big Bad Wolf on the way in the shape of womanizing musical agent Maxime Wolf (Benjamin Biolay).

     Set off this are a welter of other stories of which the most present is the relationship between Marianne and Sandro's dad Pierre (Mr. Bacri); she's attempting to deal with her separation and her daughter's retreat into religion, he's obsessed with an old acquaintance of his dad's prediction that he'll die within the month. It's by far the strongest of the many plot threads dealing with faith, hope and love thrown around a film that is looser than Ms. Jaoui's usual work, unafraid to fall flat on her face in trying new things. But the clever whimsicality of the sprawling script seems to demand a firmer directing hand than the actress, who is more at ease with the actors and isn't entirely in control of the film's tone, the occasionally burlesque, baroque visuals and stylized production design ill at ease with the dialogue's colloquial, natural feeling. I was reminded precisely of Mr. Resnais, whose usual narrative playfulness would have done wonders for the wit and cleverness Au bout du conte manifests throughout.

     For all that, it's a funny, charming comedy, one that really comes together in its second half, once all the characters and plot elements are laid out, performed with the usual care we recognise from Ms. Jaoui's films by an ensemble cast that makes the most out of her and Mr. Bacri's pointed, smart dialogue.

Cast: Agathe Bonitzer, Arthur Dupont, Valérie Crouzet, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Dominique Valadié, Benjamin Biolay, Agnès Jaoui, Laurent Poitrenaux, Béatrice Rosen, Didier Sandre, Nina Meurisse, Clément Roussier
Director: Ms. Jaoui
Screenwriters: Ms. Jaoui, Mr. Bacri
Cinematography: Lubomir Bakchev  (colour)
Music: Fernando Fiszbein
Designer: François Emmanuelli
Costumes: Nathalie Raoul
Editor: Fabrice Rouaud
Production: Les Films A4 in co-production with France 2 Cinéma, Memento Films Productions, La Cinéfacture and Hérodiade Films
Framce, 2012, 112 minutes

Screened: screener DVD, Lisbon, October 10th 2013


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