Venus Beauty Institute
review by Elias Savada, 1 December 2000

The winner of four César awards and three other nominations from the twenty-five-year-old prize bestower of the French Oscar, Venus Beauty Institute’s belated arrival on American shores follows most of its competition (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, The Girl on the Bridge, East-West). The noirish Bridge continues its well deserved assault on selected U.S. locations, the latter nominee has played out its respectable initial engagements here, and the English-language, big-budget Milla Jovovich-starrer never fired up the box office over a year ago. As for Venus, it is a less compelling story -- a slice of French Brie -- soft and vulnerable. I suspect that what’s good for the French goose is not going to translate for the American gander. While it may not appeal to U.S. audiences in search of their usual action-packed fare, for the art-house crowd it offers up a small emotional smorgasbord of the love-scarred and lovelorn workers and clients of a small Parisian skin-care boutique, where neon pink and bright aquamarine colors garishly belie an often drabber existence.

This performance-driven vehicle stars Nathalie Baye (Day for Night, The Return of Martin Guerre, and the recent An Affair of Love) as the attractive 40-year-old Angèle Piana. She carries the psychological baggage of her parents’ love-crossed deaths a generation-and-a-half earlier and her own countless affairs, back seat quickies, and one-night stands that merely cover up a morose psychological sadness. Love, jealousy, and pain are behind her, she proclaims, and a plain wrapper passionless future is laid out for all of Paris to see behind the window-enshrouded shop. Her former boyfriend Jacques (Jacques Bonnaffé) wanders in and out the salon, his disfigured face (apparently her fault) a subdued reminder of all that can wrong with her love life.

One man’s female trash turns out to be another one’s treasure, and while Angèle is given the heave-ho after a three-day tryst, scruffy stranger Antoine Dumont (Samuel Le Bihan) admires her spunkish resentment from nearby, falling hopelessly for the sad-eyed lady. He stoops to conquer her, but has his own burdens to bear, not the least being a beautiful twenty-year-old fiancée (Héléne Fillières) who is extremely hesitant to end their relationship. As the object of his affection, Angèle is less than enthused. She prefers to involve herself with her accidental vocation, pseudo-counseling her two co-workers, and small talk with the shop’s patron Madame Nadine (the fabulous Bulle Ogier, always the object of my attention). Newcomer Audrey Tautou (she won one of those Césars) is the stunning and meek Marie, a young beautician smitten with big tips and pearls by M. Lachenay (Robert Hossein), a rich, well-meaning client and ex-pilot bearing the brunt of Angèle’s suspicion and ridicule (he has scars that were covered with skin from his now-deceased wife’s buttocks). The sultry Mathilde Seigner is the semi-dumpy Samantha, the other worker who finds life and the approaching Christmas and New Year holiday season too depressing to bear. One of the more memorable appearances is by Claire Nebout as Madame Buisse, a free spirit who wears nothing but an overcoat into the spa and dumps it ceremoniously at the front door for all, including many wide-eyed passersby, to gaze at her glorious full frontal attributes. As the stalking paramour, Antoine has to bear his complicated soul and his heart (especially as he’s forced to become a patron himself to get a word or two in to the reluctant-to-love Angèle), his free time currently sponsored by a church that has commissioned a sculpture from him. Figures he’s an headstrong artist.

Actress turned director Tonie Marshall’s film (her first of a handful to get commercial release over here) follows the general mundane lives of these characters and their relationships, something French cineastes gobbled up. And something that American audiences might have no appetite for this post-Thanksgiving season. Undoubtedly they have enough dysfunction of their own (let alone figuring out who our next president will be) to defer time watching another weary Gallic variation of filme d’amour.

Facial and emotional asphyxiation welcome you behind the door at the Venus Beauty Institute. Liver and love spots be damned. Fell depressed this holiday season? The French have just the right bring-me-down if you can’t bear to drown yourself in a bowl of eggnog. It's 105 minutes of misery and solitude.

Written nd
Directed by:

Tonie Marshall

Nathalie Baye
Bulle Ogier
Samuel Le Bihan
Robert Hossein
Jacques Bonnaffé
Mathilde Seigner
Audrey Tautou
Claire Nebout





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