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Don't Take My Wife, Please 

by Ray Pride


If you can imagine picking up a product from your grocery's generic aisle labeled "Soup," you probably could also imagine Yvan Attal's My Wife Is An Actress (Ma Femme Est Un Actrice) being classified as "French Movie." Or, as many of my friends who saw the film would have put it, "I'll Have the Stinky Cheese Instead, Please."


I found My Wife to be charming, and it's in no small part because of the coltish beauty of the superbly engaging star Charlotte Gainsbourg (whose character is also named Charlotte). Attal wrote and directed the romantic comedy; he also stars as Yvan, Gainsbourg's jealous sportswriter husband. As a filmmaker, Attal's greatest suit is a sure sense of the paranoia that comes with commitment. The film is good at capturing the icky feelings that come with love, particularly love for someone the rest of the world seems to find singularly desirable. The view here of Parisian privilege is almost as blinkered as Woody Allen's perspective on New York City, and that could be another irritation to the non-Francophile moviegoer. Someone who dislikes My Wife Is An Actress might easily say, "Gee, I hate French movies. Here's why."


Viewers with such attitudes don't need to stop there, for there are other annoyances. The director-actor over-acts; cliches abound about Jewish neurosis, Catholic circumcision, fight-happy Arabs and homophobia. Finally, it's hard to feel sorry for this guy -- it must be tough being married to a woman who's the most desirable actress on the shores of the Seine.


While Yvan is a TV sports reporter, his wife's fame and allure far outstrip his own, and when they're together, he's all but invisible. Strangely, the Israeli-born Attal resembles a more rough-hewn Gallic version of Edward Burns. I'm sure he'd rather be compared to Woody Allen, but his looks aren't the issue. Everyone from headwaiters to the average gawking passersby to sarcastic cops see only Charlotte's glow of fame and beauty. (When Yvan's pulled over, they want to see Charlotte's license.) No wonder he's neurotic. Is the only true romantic comedy also a neurotic comedy? Woody Allen posed that question with his films; Attal does, too.


Gainsbourg was a vital presence in movies she acted in while still in her teens, such as the clammy family intrigue The Cement Garden and, later, Jane Eyre with William Hurt. She's the daughter of scruffy French pop star Serge Gainsbourg and British actress Jane Birkin, who also performed together, notably,on an orgasmically sigh-laden song called "Je t'aime," (which some readers might remember from The Full Monty). With her beaky nose and glistening eyes, she bears some of the goofy, lithe beauty of her mother and has a dazzling smile that suggests timeless girlishness. The movie-fiction Charlotte is a sweet creation, coming off as a kind of naif of unselfconscious comeliness: She doesn't know why people get so flustered, particularly Yvan.


Yvan is also morbidly fixated on Charlotte's on-screen love scenes. Art imitates life and husband suspects wife, as the cinematic couple enacts a neurotic cartoon of what could be the cause of a terrible rift in a real-life relationship. The best scenes may belong to the unbearably handsome Terrence Stamp, her passive-aggressive ladies' man of a leading man. In movies like Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and The Limey, Stamp looks his 62 years. But in those pictures and this, he's like the best advertisement ever for getting older -- that is, if you have looks like his. He plays beneath his intelligence, and it's a sly, delighted performance that matches Gainsbourg's. Both actors seem to play an offhanded, relaxed version of a character they know all too well.

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