Film Review: Romantics Anonymous

Already released as a video-on-demand offering in late October, this highly entertaining French/Belgian romantic comedy about two emotionally stunted souls in the chocolate business who grow sweet on each other gets a justified big-screen window. It&#8
Reviews

Could Jean-Pierre Améris’ sublime Romantics Anonymous, co-written with Philippe Blasband, be the most endearing rom-com ever made about the daunting challenges of meaningful romantic commitments (a la The Apartment), or maybe the funniest (like The Graduate), or perhaps the wisest (When Harry Met Sally)?

Let’s just say that Romantics Anonymous—a yummy paean to the pleasures of chocolate and music which confronts the more benign demons of the human condition—is surely one of the most hilariously honest. Therein lies its sweet spot.

The film is also about pain, but don’t panic. The pain is familiar and can be soothed. Maybe.

Residing in the same French town but unknown to each other, Jean-René (Benoît Poelvoorde), who runs a failing chocolate business, and Angélique (Isabelle Carré), a gifted but impossibly modest chocolate maker, are ego-challenged, self-effacing emotional zombies unable to express their all-too-human feelings. To deal with this problem, Angélique regularly attends a 12-step support group called Romantics Anonymous and Jean-René regularly sees a shrink (Stéphan Wojtowicz) who administers various therapeutic “exercises” meant to thrust his patient into the human experience familiar to most.

Angélique also seeks employment, since successful chocolate manufacturer Mr. Mercier (Claude Aufaure), with whom she studied, has died. Angélique is hampered to the point that she cannot even use her Mercier employment as a calling card, as she hid behind the scenes as the mysterious “hermit” who created the fabled Mercier chocolate.

Meanwhile, in another corner of the business, the equally shy and awkward Jean-René runs a company, the Chocolate Mill, teetering on bankruptcy. His chocolate is good but too old-fashioned and traditional; it misses the magic of the Mercier chocolates.

As happens in films like these, Angélique, desperate for employment, hops on board Jean-René’s establishment as a measly sales rep. On the personal side, Jean-René, working on his shrink’s latest exercise to ask someone to dinner, taps Angélique.

The date is a disaster, beginning with the brief dinner patter they attempt. Jean-René easily sweats up in such situations, but his plan to change shirts in the men’s room craters and he bolts from the restaurant.

Eventually, the two warm a bit (another shrink-imposed “exercise” has Jean-René actually gripping her hand), but the situation at the Chocolate Mill grows grim. Angélique fails at selling the product to stores because the Mill’s chocolate is just too passé.

Angélique attempts a rescue as only an emotionally stricken creature can. One of her vendors, Madame Legrand (Christine Demarest), who runs a local upscale chocolate store and has rejected the Mill line, agrees to try samples from their new line which Angélique announces but does not exist. In lieu of admitting she was the mistress-mind behind the great Mercier chocolate, Angélique pretends to make contact with Mercier’s “hermit” via one-way webcam and conveys instructions to the loyal Mill staff who follow the recipe and turn out a delectable product.

Madame Legrand, enthralled with the new line, facilitates a Mill launch at the prestigious convention at Roanne. Once in Roanne, with loyal staff as support and forced to share a hotel room, Jean-René and Angélique move on to new challenges. All’s not quite so predictable, as reversals interfere and dog these two wounded warriors on love’s well-worn battlefield.

The deft and sometimes loopy Romantics Anonymous might prove every bit as satisfying to filmgoers making tracks to The Artist, with which it shares courageous originality, assured craftsmanship, compassion for its wounded, and reverence for cinema. (The comparison, of course, is moot, because quality is so often left at the altar when not hitched to marketing.)

Améris and Blasband are blessed with impeccable performances from leads Poelvoorde (here a comedic master of pregnant pauses, awkward Tati-esque gyrations and Fernandel-like facial expressions telegraphing volumes) and a lovingly addled and adorable Carré, a fine romantic foil.

The director’s attention to details rewards. A scene in which Jean-René unexpectedly takes to the mic to sing a gypsy ballad at the Roanne hotel reminds that such a seemingly extroverted and highly popular karaoke-like exercise is perfect cover for emotionally disabled introverts.

There’s pluperfect casting all around (those fussy, nosy, compassionate French, including Lorella Cravotta, Lise Lamétrie, Swann Arlaud and Pierre Niney as Jean-René’s loyal workers and support team). And hats off to Améris’ consistent tone of relatable desperation and longing that plumbs characters and viewers alike in an anxious world of insecure stalwarts.