On a recent episode of "How I Met Your Mother," Neil Patrick Harris' resident pickup artist bets his pals he can snag a 22-year-old, even in full octogenarian makeup -- which he does. But when the gang finds out the girl is French, they tell him it doesn't count. Why?
"She's French," one of them tells him. "That's like playing tennis with the net down."
Ah, yes. If there is one stereotypical conceit that France has contributed to popular culture, it's that an old man could sweep a pretty young thang off her feet in no time flat. (Two words: Celine Dion.) It's become such a played-out cliché, you'd think somebody from France would've made fun of the concept by now.
As I watched "A Girl Cut in Two," the latest from French New Wave auteur Claude Chabrol, I thought he was going down that road.
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All the components are there: Charismatic, elder, married author Charles (François Berléand) begins to fall for beautiful, young TV weather girl Gabrielle ("Swimming Pool" hottie Ludivine Sagnier).
The lady can't help but be drawn to the seasoned vet -- his wit and experience had this nubile pupil sprung from the get-go. A torrid affair obviously ensues, but it's not without its obstacles. One such obstacle is Paul (a snotty-scary Benoît Magimel), the bratty, unhinged heir to a chemist-lab empire who has an inexplicable, unexplained hatred for Charles and an undying love for Gabrielle.
While Charles condemns Paul for his uncivilized behavior among his confidants, we know Charles is no better than he. Charles is just more reserved in his controlling and manipulation. He's the sort of cat who has no problem telling his wife (Valeria Cavalli), whom he calls a "saint," that she's the only one, all the while carrying on a freaky-sneaky liaison with Gabrielle.
With these three wrapped in a doomed love triangle, a better film title would have been "Torn Between Two Sociopaths."
For a while there, I thought co-writer/director Chabrol was not only dispensing his darkly farcical take on May-December romances, but offering another sly heaping of bourgeoisie skewering.
The wide-eyed and impressionable Gabrielle is herself a gal trying to show she's more than a pretty face, attempting to move up in the ranks at her workplace. With Gabrielle as the trophy girl in this battle of old and new elitism that Charles and Paul, respectively, represent, Chabrol gives us another snarky, archetypal view of culture and class conflict in his home country.
Unfortunately, in the last half-hour, Chabrol remembers he's Claude Chabrol, the crafty craftsman with a love for Hitchcock.
He also remembers that this film is loosely based on the story of Evelyn Nesbit, the early-20th century New York model/chorus girl who was also in the middle of a notorious love triangle. He lays down a fatal, third-act twist, taking this smirking satire into a more straight-faced direction.
While Chabrol fans may consider this another film of his that's certain to fly over the heads of less savvy audiences, it should be noted that "Girl" isn't that difficult to get.
However, you start to wonder if Chabrol gets it. While it's well-made and finely acted, the film never seems to grasp its overall tone. Shifting moods as often as it dissolves into scenes (I haven't seen so many wipes in a film since Gus Van Sant's "Psycho" remake), "Girl" runs hot or cold. Not to mention, Chabrol lets us know in oh-so-many ways that Sagnier's character is, in fact, a girl cut in two.
By the time Chabrol gets to the literal, circular saw-included finale, "A Girl Cut in Two" couldn't be more blatantly, unfortunately obvious.