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Movie Review

Shall We Kiss?

An examination of desire tempered by decorum

Emilie (Julie Gayet) and Gabriel (Michaël Cohen) are two of the six characters at the heart of Emmanuel Mouret's film. Emilie (Julie Gayet) and Gabriel (Michaël Cohen) are two of the six characters at the heart of Emmanuel Mouret's film. (Pascal chantier)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / April 17, 2009
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'Shall We Kiss?" is a curiosity, and a very watchable one. It seems like a chatty, elegant French romantic comedy - Eric Rohmer Lite, perhaps, or sexier Woody Allen - until it takes an apparent turn for the melodramatic. Behind the melodrama, though, is a further layer of subversive parody, and behind that is a real knowledge of the power of desire. Yet the whole thing's weightless: An upscale date-movie bonbon that keeps yielding pungent aftertastes.

It opens with an absurdly attractive couple, Gabriel (Michaël Cohen) and Emilie (Julie Gayet), meeting chic in the streets of Nantes. There are immediate sparks, followed by a lovely dinner, followed by Gabriel leaning in for a kiss and Emilie pulling away. Why not? he asks. Because, she responds, I knew this couple once. . .

At which point "Shall We Kiss?" digs into its story proper, about two absurdly attractive best friends in Paris, the married Judith (Virginie Ledoyen, "8 Women") and intermittently single Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret), who almost accidentally fall into a physical affair that deepens into love. The problem is they don't want to hurt their significant others, Judith's husband, Claudio (Stefano Accorsi), and Nicolas's girlfriend Câline (Frédérique Bel), both of whom are absurdly attractive.

At first blush, "Shall We Kiss?" seems to be taking itself so seriously that it's hard not to get the giggles. Everyone here talks about sex without ever seeming to do anything about it. The initial mutual seduction between Judith and Nicolas is borderline ridiculous because the two are so achingly polite as they ask each other, May I touch this? May I kiss that? Slowly it occurs to a viewer that this is part of the game, that such stringent decorum will pay off in immense pleasure down the line. Not that the film lets us see, although there is that shot of Judith apologetically patching up the scratches she has left on her lover's back.

Mouret, the earnest-looking actor playing Nicolas, is also the film's writer and director, and he seems more alert to the rules of the game than his characters are. He knows that what happens before and after sex is usually more erotic than the during, at least to an outside observer. He also understands that human beings are at their funniest when they think they're being terribly serious, and vice versa.

So "Shall We Kiss?" becomes a shifting dance of responsibility and regret and release that for the most part keeps us enjoyably off-balance. Just when you feel the movie should be getting a little crazy, though, Mouret tightens the plot screws while at the same time poking fun at the need for plot. In one scene, a character has to make a crucial call, but a thief materializes from nowhere to steal her cellphone. It's a cute bit - mugger ex machina - but you can feel the film disappearing into its own head.

The finale comes to the rescue, with Gabriel and Emilie telling tales in the glow of a late-night hotel room before the film ends with a muted twist and a sigh. At its most enchanting, "Shall We Kiss?" envisions a France in which everyone is discreetly but recklessly in heat. It's an ode to the absurdity of attraction.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

SHALL WE KISS?

Written and directed by: Emmanuel Mouret

Starring: Virginie Ledoyen, Mouret, Julie Gayet, Michaël Cohen, Frédérique Bel, Stefano Accorsi

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 100 minutes

Unrated (as PG-13: discreet Gallic sexual conversation, brief topless scene)

In French, with subtitles