Daniel Auteuil has a filed-down sort of intensity. In dramatic roles, such as the private investigator who stumbles onto a child prostitution operation in The Lost Child, or the man who’s being targeted by an unknown stalker in Cache, he has the slightly scary gleam of an intelligent man whose intelligence is totally fixated on one thing, like an archer. In Patrice Leconte’s new comedy My Best Friend, Auteuil plays François, an elegantly self-assured antiques dealer who is, beneath his sophisticated exterior, a buffoon, and he pours all that quiet intensity into the character’s cluelessness.
As François, Auteuil is less like an archer than like a dog that thinks he’s mastered the universe because he can always remember where to find his food dish. In his dealings with others, he’s a shark, and he so enjoys throwing money around that his partner in the gallery they co-own, Catherine (Julie Gayet), always has one eye on the phone, waiting for the bank auditors to call. Yet he’s oblivious to how miserable he makes everybody. He enjoys his life so much that he just assumes that his pleasure in himself is contagious.
The plot kicks in when François, at a celebratory dinner with Catherine and other colleagues, is bluntly informed that he has no friends. At first, this news seems so unlikely to him that it strikes him as a joke, and he’s happy to accept a bet that he can’t produce a genuine best friend inside of a month. The movie is funniest when François is working his way through his date book, hounding people he barely knows, trying to find someone who’ll fold in the face of his insistence that they must like him. At his lowest point, he arranges to “run into” someone he hasn’t seen in decades but remembers as having been his best childhood friend. At first you think that, of course, the man doesn’t remember him. Finally, his wife steps in and angrily tells François that her husband does remember him, and that he hated his guts when they were kids, and that he still does.
Leconte, whose best film, Man On The Train, brought together a quiet, elderly teacher (the magnifi cent, mournful-faced Jean Rochefort) and a professional criminal, played by the haggard French rock star Johnny Hallyday, has a thing for odd-couple mismatches. Here, the missing piece of the puzzle that is François’s life turns out to be Bruno (Dany Boon), a taxi driver who’s a genial chatterbox and trivia freak. Boon makes him an unlikely but winning mixture of natural charmer and hopeless social incompetent, childishly naive and sweet, but with an assertive streak that surfaces when he feels badly used. François hits him up for lessons on how to be a likable guy, and inevitably, the story becomes about whether the snobby dealer will be able to develop a friendship with the vulnerable young prole.
My Best Friend is formulaic, with a cobbled-together, too-neat happy ending. It doesn’t haunt you the way the more deeply melancholic Man On The Train did, where both the main characters had their whole lives behind them and already seemed to have one foot in the afterlife. It’s expertly made, though, and it has the charge of Auteuil’s performance to carry you through the thin patches. He has more to chew on here than in the recent French farce The Valet (which also co-starred Dany Boon). Here he gets to play something genuine, and unusual—a superficial man’s uneasy recognition of his life’s emptiness. Even at the end, when François is supposed to have become human and capable of real friendship, Auteuil inserts a bit of a chill. The sadness that lingers in his smile is that of a man whose simple pleasures have been too hard-won to be easily enjoyed.
Lady Chatterley, directed by Pascale Ferran from a script credited to Ferran and Roger Bohbot, is much more ambitious, God help it. Adapted not from D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover but fro