Even more than a decade after the lovely “Amélie,” the combination of Audrey Tautou and Paris still provokes an expectation of whimsy — for better or worse. True enough, “Delicacy,” in its opening minutes, seems to be wandering down some familiar, glitter-strewn rues of a very fanciful France.
Tautou’s Nathalie is wooed and wed by adorable, floppy-haired François (Pio Marmaï). He proposes by sliding his ring-key onto her finger. They have dates at the café where they first met, pretending not to know each other. Yep, these scenes’ elevated blood-sugar levels could floor Paula Deen. But then … things change. Because it happens only 15 minutes in, and because the trailer includes it, this can’t be considered a spoiler: François dies.
From “Amélie” territory, the movie tiptoes into the geography of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue” (1993), which followed Juliette Binoche through stages of grief following her husband’s and daughter’s deaths. Nathalie shuts down, buries herself in work, throws mementoes away. When she contemplates deleting François’ number on her cell phone, it might be a devastating moment of recognition for anyone who has recently lost someone.
And then, yet again, the movie turns a corner and becomes something else — something that briefly resembles the urban absurdism of director Bertrand Blier, circa “Too Beautiful for You.” Three years a widow and now a high-powered executive at a vaguely defined firm in Paris, Nathalie spends her days and nights absorbed in her job — until a balding, doughy, gangly Swedish employee named Markus (François Damiens) taps on her office door. And, as if sleepwalking, Nathalie crosses the carpet and kisses this subordinate and virtual stranger with a deep, unfocused passion.
It’s a mystery, this kiss — certainly to Markus, and nearly as much to Nathalie, who prefers to forget that it ever happened. It’s like one of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins, the necessary thingamajig that’s the catalyst for everything that follows. Psychologically, it’s both a cheat and absolutely perfect.
The filmmakers make a small, brief mistake, I think, in showing Markus in moon-eyed rapture after this kiss, harking back to the whimsical tone of the start. The bulk of the movie is more serious, following Nathalie’s and Markus’ tentative, odd-duck courtship, which they initially refuse to categorize as such.
After all, what would people think? How could Tautou, poster girl for the French gamine at her fine-boned finest, want to have anything to do with this pasty import, who lacks even the superficially sleek edges of an IKEA product? Luckily, Damiens brings a kind of aggrieved decency to the role that, by the end, starts to feel like a plausible counterweight to Tautou’s starshine.
“Delicacy” doesn’t quite hang together as a unified piece. It seems to be making up its moods — and genres — as it goes along. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it treats your interest with respect. But it lingers in your mind more for those curious shifts of tone than for its plotline.
It’s based on a best-selling French novel, and it has both the appeal and strange, non-dramatic digressions that published fiction can have. The movie never explains its title, but I’m guessing that it refers to Nathalie’s attraction to Markus: he is a delicacy, appreciated by her, and perhaps by those of a discerning palate willing to try something that’s not listed on the regular menu. That’s a pretty good analogy for the movie itself.
“Delicacy.” Starring Audrey Tautou, François Damiens. Directed by David Foenkinos and Stéphane Foenkinos. In French with subtitles. Rated PG-13. 108 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.