In the French farce My Wife is an Actress, actor-director Yvan Attal spends as much time dodging emotional bullets as hitting comic targets. Combine the title with the image of a dazzling female and a frazzled male, and you've got the movie perfectly.
The picture has its moderate appeal, thanks to elegant film craft, an even more elegant female lead, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and a second male lead, Terence Stamp, who is elegant to the third power. But it leaves you feeling as if you've seen a grab-bag pilot for a TV series that didn't make the cut.
As a sportswriter also named Yvan, who is married, just like him, to Charlotte (the daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, she goes by her first name in the movie), Attal must portray a guy who apparently never pondered his wife's vocation when they were dating. Now he's growing weary even of her perks.
It annoys him that she can get deluxe restaurant seating any time - it makes her the brioche-winner in the house. He's both irked and happy that being married to her gives him an erotic aura, and that her celebrity persuades a traffic cop to overlook a violation. When a near-stranger (an ex-boyfriend of his sister's) begins haranguing him about what it's like to see Charlotte play sex scenes, the boor detonates Yvan's insecurities about a wife whose sexual desirability is part of her profession.
The movie derives some comic momentum from Yvan's escalating frenzy and Charlotte's blithe allure and sanity. She's a fresh, unselfconscious beauty, part pop queen and part gamine, who doesn't think of wandering until Yvan's raging jealousies put impure thoughts into her head.
In France, where Attal has an acting career himself and where Gainsbourg is a household word, the intersection of the movie with actuality may have lent these proceedings a playful bite. On its own terms, the movie is merely an assemblage of riffs on how private and public fantasies merge in a medium that's a dream world for its fans - and a bigger one for its practitioners.
In between Charlotte's disconcerting experience on an English film with a womanizing star named John (Terrence Stamp) and Yvan's attempts to understand her, by visiting her set and by taking an acting class, Attal sandwiches in the tale of Yvan's sister, a Jewish mother-to-be with a Gentile husband. (The couple has issues about names and circumcision.) Perhaps this portion is meant to contrast the comedy-drama of reality with that of imagination; the sister certainly thinks so when she complains to their parents that her brother can do no wrong since he married a movie star. But the end result is to make the movie seem like a sloppy triple-decker picked off the menu of the Pirandelicatessen.
Attal is a puckish performer - he looks like Griffin Dunne, but he acts more like Dudley Moore in his 10 days - and when Yvan does a sweet, silly improvisation of a budding flower in his acting class, you hope insights and revelations will follow. But they don't.
Yvan gets his Eureka! experience when he sees classmates put on a Marivaux play that contains lines like "We only pretend to pretend." For this movie, it's a pseudo-epiphany, shallow and intellectualized. Although Yvan learns that he underestimated the pull of his wife's job, he doesn't grasp that any art, and especially one that involves personal transformation, is more than a job: It's a portal to transcendence.
Yvan reflects director Attal's view of what a limited man can make of art - and this view reeks of condescension. If they're anything like their New York and L.A. counterparts, Paris sportswriters such as Yvan would appreciate the stakes of an actor's performance and the quicksilver nature of the thespian trade.
The failure of the movie is that Yvan is no match for Stamp's John, an old-hand actor who has become the spirit of seduction, a man who values movies for permitting him to make other kinds of art (paintings and drawings) while he enriches every film scene that he's in. Dark-eyed and silver-maned, Stamp has a magical presence. He's like a Prospero waiting for a latter-day Shakespeare to write a tempestuous comedy around him. Too bad My Wife is an Actress isn't it.