Happily Ever After
If there are support groups out there for single women still wishing they were not— Happily Ever After — from director Yvan Attal ( My Wife is an Actress ), who also stars—should be run on a loop through all of their meetings. It would cure them in an instant. (I'm beginning to wonder if my satisfaction with being single hasn't everything to do with my spending some formative romantic years in Paris ). The tongue in the title's cheek is not entirely sardonic, though . . . cataloguing as it does the myriad ways in which successful marriages make people miserable, the film's message is ultimately pro misery.
Told from the male perspective, despite a deceptive focus on Attal's real-life partner, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays discontented wife to his distracted husband, Happily Ever After shows why betraying their allies comes so easily to the French: they practice it at home.
Vincent (Attal) and Georges (Alain Chabat), married thirty-somethings, envy their single friend, Fred (Alain Cohen), who, in the gallic tradition, is mightily unattractive, yet beds a different budding beauty every night (the lines he spews in multiple languages across the phone suggest that women really will fall for anything when the Eiffel Tower is a point of reference). They exchange glances and bite their fists in mock self-containment as they watch him play a Nordic goddess, but he longs to settle down. Georges is a boorish type of the last millennium; his most humorous diatribe is about how he had a choice between all the women in the world, on one hand, and his wife on the other, and he chose his wife (cue Henny Youngman with Sam Kineson's delivery). A non-stop laugh riot, I tell you. His wife Nathalie (Emmanuelle Seigner) is a grating shrew. She's a feminist, you see. And not just a feminist, but a Betty Friedan stuck-in-the-70s feminist, in perpetual male-bashing mode, harping on and on about things like buying girls' toys for boys (the film's infuriating example: a vacuum cleaner). Vincent is a luxury car salesman married to the svelte and sensible Gabrielle (Gainsbourg), a real estate agent (that his job sells moving around, and hers sells settling down is surely mere coincidence).
From all appearances they have a strong, if not-what-it-used-to-be marriage. There are still highs in their relationship (particularly when they pretend they don't know each other), though they are more playful than passionate (how they cover each other with food-stuffs shows the difference between an affair of 9 ½ Weeks and a marriage of 9 ½ years), and they don't whine or yell. The film's odd sideline of a soft-spoken Indian couple with an active sex life after 20 years notwithstanding, Vincent and Gabrielle are the couple to beat (the other couples serve just to put them into relief). And wouldn't you know it, therein lies the rub . . .something is rotten . . . etc. and so forth.
The film follows Gabrielle as her eye follows Vincent. Gainsbourg is good (better than Attal), and you can feel her reaching out to her husband, and feel her feeling nothing back in return. It follows her further into her fantasies as she walks around town, silently tempted by the good-looking man in the Virgin Megastore beside her (Johnny Depp) as Radiohead's “Creep” plays on both of their headsets (“You're so fucking special, I wish I was special”)—then suddenly desperate (“she's running out again, she's running out, she runs, runs, runs”). The song plays through to the end; the fantasy not quite. “I want you to notice when I'm not around;” the lyrics become an alarm. She leads another man up to an apartment—the camera angles, the fantasy shifts. Rather than a place to bring life to, the empty rooms become a place where life once was, a child's forgotten toy an emblem of loss. Gabrielle knows. Before the audience knows, she knows. She can feel it. (Do you think about other men? her husband asks her. And you, she responds. Do you think about other women?) She imagines the world after marriage. She takes a vacation, finds comfort at the ear of an ardent suitor. Says “fuck” a lot in English and makes it sound ugly.
The reviews say that Happily Ever After is a film about infidelity. It is not. Comparisons to They Don't Live Here Anymore or even Closer miss the point. Other lovers are mere punctuation. Imagined or consummated, adultery is just an illusion here—not an escape from or rebellion against (I love you, Vincent says, and I love my wife) , but the spark that makes the marriage work, or makes it feel like it might as well (“I don't care if it hurts; I want to have control”). Know that superstition about three on match?
One of them doesn't make it. (For all their casual sexuality, the French are barely more tender towards “the other woman” than we are, or the Saudis, for that matter, but I digress. The other is irrelevant.).
In the final act, “Creep” gives way to “Can't Help Falling in Love with You” (did I imagine that? it's not on the soundtrack listing), and the film gives marriage, such as it is, its head. That woman needs man is not quite so clear at this point (the epilogue suggests quite the contrary, except for the woman without). But that man must have his mate; that no one can deny. The married reviewers seem content with the resolution. Me, I left the theater more certain of my choices, yet wholly unresolved, with two haunting images: Vincent's parents, a weathered but beautiful Anouk Aimee and a distant Claude Berri (this film's producer, of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources fame), dining wordlessly together—is a lifetime of silent synchronicity enough?--and Gainsbourg's Gabrielle and Johnny Depp (clearly enjoying his own French accent) in a tiny elevator lifting endlessly into the clouds, the soundtrack playing something else (Follow Me?), and me back with Radiohead, “What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here. I don't belong here.”
©2005 Shari L. Rosenblum