All you should need to know about "How Much Do You Love Me?" is that it stars Monica Bellucci being directed by Bertrand Blier. Unfortunately, you're about to know why that's not quite enough to recommend it.
Italy's Bellucci is unquestionably one of the sexiest actresses in the world, blessed with curves that could make a melon baller jealous. And Blier, the heralded French creator of "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs" and "Too Beautiful for You," is a seasoned architect of provocative (if sometimes thinly constructed) sex-comedy romps.
Together, they portend something gloriously combustible and rare, right?
Well, as it turns out, not so much.
"How Much Do You Love Me?" ("Combien tu m'aimes?" when it was first released in 2005) isn't actually bad; it just isn't as good as it should be. Set in Paris, it gives us the story of an unexceptional office clerk named Francois (the irrepressibly virile Bernard Campan), who solicits a prostitute named Daniela (Bellucci) to come live with him until his money runs out. She agrees when he tells her he's just won millions in the lottery, though from the very beginning she looks certain to bring more turmoil to his life than he's bargained for.
Riffing on a plot point that predates talkies, Francois has a weak heart that makes him prone to fainting, and Daniela's sensual beauty literally takes his breath away. She mesmerizes his friends and tests his patience until, by the time Gerard Depardieu shows up as the hooker's crazy, mob-molded pimp, we're knee-deep in fluffy farce with obvious operatic parallels.
Just in case you don't pick up on that, writer-director Blier hammers home his intentions with a campy, aria-filled soundtrack. It's funny at first, but then it just feels big and empty, as if it's repeatedly underscoring heft and outrageousness that are lacking in the script. The most entertaining stuff actually happens when the film is intimate and sharp-tongued, as when a neighbor muzzles Daniela's lovemaking by advising Francois that the louder the lady's orgasm, the bigger the lie.
As usual, Bellucci (a former model who first wowed Americans in "Malena") devours the camera, mending any lapses in chemistry between the actors. She manages to make Daniela magnetic, even if she can't make her story hold together better.
Campan's performance is far less seductive, but he's capable and credible in a tricky tender role.
And then there is Depardieu: hammy, cartoonish, scary-playful, and on screen just long enough to deliver some of the film's best lines.
If only Blier had used him more, and if only he'd used Bellucci better. Then "How Much Do You Love Me?" really might have lived up to its marquee billing.
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.