Top: Bulle Ogier
Above: Dianne Wiest, Stanislas Merhar, Ogier, Jane Birkin
Which is where that cast comes in. Not that Litvak is entirely deficient—several of his situations are understated and flavorful and work rather well. But because the film is deliberately low-key and dependent on nuance and timing, it would’ve surely suffered in the care of a less seasoned group of actors. Stanislas Merhar plays the twentysomething son of opera diva Wiest, in Paris for a performance of Turandot. The story follows him after he witnesses a murder, moves in with psychiatric patient Birkin (who’s suffering the delusion of being Vanessa Redgrave), and sets up meetings with strange men through the gay personals.
The film is as convoluted as that brief synopsis implies—given the wild improbabilities and homosexual themes, call it the Almodovar Syndrome—but hand it to Litvak for allowing Birkin and Ogier free reign to work on their pratfalls and double-takes. Birkin has enjoyed cult celebrity, first for her stint in Swinging London in the mid-‘60s, and then her artistic and romantic partnership with Serge Gainsbourg. (She also appeared, somewhat ethereal, as the artist’s diffident wife in Jacques Rivette’s La Belle noiseuse .)
But Ogier has slipped through the cracks, at least in America. She had good leading roles in films for Barbet Schroeder—La Vallée (1972), Maîtresse (1976), and the woefully overlooked Tricheurs (1984)—but has generally been relegated to brief, even thankless supporting parts, especially in recent years: Vénus beauté (institut) (Tonie Marshall, 1999), Au coeur du mensonge (Claude Chabrol, 1999), Bord de mer (Julie Lopes-Curval, 2002). Playing Delphine Seyrig’s alcoholic younger sister in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), she brought an impish humor that complimented Buñuel’s sarcastic wit, one of the first hints of her comedic expertise.
As comedies continue to stray further from convention, opting for the broadest possible humor in exaggerated situations, the pictures become less accessible to general tastes. For example, there were people who recommended the recent Dodgeball (2004), which struck me as utterly boring and worthless, until I hit the eject button on the DVD player after forty tortuous minutes. Fans of such things might have that same reaction to Merci Docteur Rey!, which I found to be one of the funnier and genuinely moving comedies to come out lately, even if many of its assets arrive by chance.
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