Film >Do you even have to ask?
The titular question in this French romp is both a foregone conclusion and an exercise in tempered gratification. Gabriel (Michaël Cohen) and Émilie (Julie Gayet) are both good-looking people; they’ve just enjoyed a fine date in the romantic city of Nantes and have obvious chemistry. If Gabriel were the one posing the question, it would be phrased as one of permission. Only a woman, the film says, could even begin to think about asking with indecision, and the way in which writer-director Emmanuel Mouret explains how the question could come up at such a time isn’t about a battle of the sexes … it’s about a battle of willpower.
As a means of rationale (and partly of apology), Émilie tells her suitor the tale of star-crossed friends Judith (a radiant Virginie Ledoyen) and Nicolas (Mouret himself) who were best friends until the issue of loneliness and long-buried attraction came up. Nicolas has just been dumped and misses the physical connection, he complains to his married friend; and if a woman hasn’t learned to sniff out such a moan as a thinly veiled come-on by the time she leaves her teens, she never will.
Judith knows what Nicolas is doing all right, and she offers him relief in a strictly detached, friendly kind of way. Anyone who’s played the “friends with benefits” game knows it’s one that inevitably leads to unhappiness, and these two are smart enough to know it too. If there’s one flaw in Shall We Kiss?, it’s that Mouret never gives us a reason why they go forward anyway. Perhaps it’s because people do go forward, and usually without good reason.
Whatever the case, watching Nicolas and Judith slide down their slippery slope is remarkable, sexy fun, even with the heaping servings of schadenfreude that come with it, particularly over Judith’s husband – a self-absorbed man who acts as the film’s emotional center – and their attempts to ease him out of the marriage.
The greatest maneuver of Shall We Kiss? is to turn the audience into accomplices, ever reminding us that we might be finding too much glee in the demise of otherwise fine people (including Nicolas’ girlfriend). But when Mouret injects his film with such Rohmer-like romanticism, scope and zest – to the point where even the film stock pops and crackles like a restored French New Wave classic and the characters are perfectly ’70s-style conservatively hip – how could anyone resist taking delight?
By the time Mouret brings us back to the storyteller and her potential lover, he’s worked his audience into such a pleasure-delayed lather that he controls our fate just as much as his characters’. It’s the kind of total submission to a filmmaker that’s usually reserved for edge-of-your-seat thrillers and, in a way, that’s what Mouret has made: an expertly suspenseful romance.