A skin-deep examination of love and betrayal that intermittently entertains nonetheless.
What is Pierre Salvadori’s problem with Audrey Tautou? She may be France’s sweetheart and the face of Chanel, but Salvadori sees something less innocent beneath the sunny façade of Amélie. After casting her as a cold-hearted gold digger in 2008’s Priceless, here the director envisages her as a scheming narcissist intent on meddling in other people’s lives.
Or does he? There’s a deep streak of ambivalence running through Beautiful Lies. Shot with glossy vitality against the backdrop of the Cote d’Azur, it sees Tautou struggle gamefully to play an everyday working stiff, Émilie, a hairdresser admired from afar by Jean (Sami Bouajila), her salon’s aloof handyman. One night, in a fit of romantic longing, Jean pens Émilie an anonymous love letter, only to watch, devastated, as she tosses it into a bin.
But Émilie will retrieve that letter for her own purposes – sending it to her divorced mother, Maddy (Nathalie Baye), in an attempt to snap the older woman out of the midlife crisis that has brought her to a standstill. Though Émilie’s intentions are noble, crossed wires, desperation and some classic French farce will lead to a bizarre love triangle between mother, daughter and would-be suitor, in which everybody is trying to seduce the wrong person.
Émilie is a fascinating character – cynical, manipulative and callous, she mistreats both Jean and Maddy, while petulantly expecting forgiveness and love from them both. The question is whether Salvadori really recognises the monster that he’s created.
There’s something almost psychotic about Émilie’s capacity for deceit (including her self-deception), but the film’s light-hearted grin never fades. Sticking determinedly to this playful demeanour, embodied by Tautou’s broad, ribald performance, Salvadori fails to interrogate the emotional devastation that Émilie wreaks.
The script, co-written by Salvadori and his Priceless partner Benoît Graffin, is so self-consciously constructed, it begins to feel more like an intellectual exercise – a game – than a real human drama of loss, pain and betrayal.
Sami Bouajila comes closest to realising the film’s darker implications with a subtly shaded performance that captures something of the anger and vulnerability beneath Jean’s apparently placid surface. He excels in a terrific scene with Tautou, in which Jean finally reveals his true feelings – trampled and tainted as they now are.
Even then, having set up an ending that defies rom-com cliché, Salvadori drags the film back towards convention with an epilogue that embraces unquestioning forgiveness rather than hard truths. That’s Beautiful Lies all over: flirting coyly with something bold and bitter and real, but retreating in the end into the comforting familiarity of fiction.
Audrey Tautou and Pierre Salvadori are back together for the first time since the surprisingly good Priceless.
Glossy and gorgeous to look at, Beautiful Lies is a skin-deep examination of love and betrayal that intermittently entertains nonetheless.
This was an opportunity for Tautou to represent a new kind of romantic anti-heroine, but nobody seemed to be interested.