Friends with Benefits
by Sarah Silver

Shall We Kiss?
Dir, Emmanuel Mouret, France, Music Box Films

[This review contains major plot spoilers.]

In the opening shot of Shall We Kiss?, a film that feels a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel navigated deftly by some unseen reader, the camera breezes by one handsome character, Gabriel (Michaël Cohen) and lights upon another, Emilie (Julie Gayet). Rather than just walk away from this chance encounter with a beautiful woman, as he nearly does, Gabriel offers her a ride, which she accepts, and a bud of possibility seems to appear before our eyes. When it is time to say goodbye, he takes another gamble and asks her to dinner. Again, she agrees, and with each “yes” in their story, a blossom opens.

At the end of the night, Gabriel and Emilie want to kiss, but each is already involved with someone else. Emilie is visiting Nantes on business, and the two will probably never meet again, yet she has reservations regarding “a kiss of no consequence.” She witnessed her good friend Judith’s life unravel as the result of such a kiss. Emilie guides us down the winding path of her friend’s adventure, and another layer of petals relaxes, allowing light and air to permeate the scene, as Emilie and Gabriel recede to the background.

Judith (Virginie Ledoyen, more alluring with each passing year) is quite content in her married life with Claudio (Stefano Accorsi, an appropriate physical match for her beauty). They are the perfect couple—she’s a medical researcher, he’s a pharmacist—and she feels the desire to have Claudio’s children one day soon. Judith, a modern, levelheaded gal, is able to maintain a very close platonic relationship with Nicolas (writer/director Emmanuel Mouret), a mathematician friend with whom she's always shared everything. The two set aside a specific time each week to see each other and confess the most intimate secrets of their love lives.

It took me some time to become accustomed to the onscreen persona of Nicolas. His sheepish mannerisms and the overly cozy architecture of his lived-in visage (heavy lids half-obscuring puppy dog eyes that gaze out from under a Frida-esque shag of brow) convey a less angular, more bewildered Antoine Doinel. Despite the lessons instilled in me by When Harry Met Sally…, the fact of Judith and Nicolas’s relationship remaining at friendship level felt natural. Therefore, when Nicolas, agitated from lack of physical affection, asks his friend to break off a chunk of their multilayered, amicable love and boil it down into concentrated sex for just one afternoon, the proposition is shocking to both Judith and audience.

But once the initial shock of his forwardness wears off, there is pure delight to be had in watching these two friends discover each other in a new way. The stiffness of Nicolas and Judith’s first encounter, to the deceptively innocent score of the Nutcracker Suite, while painfully awkward, is also undeniably erotic. A hand moves down a stocking-clad leg in macro focus, every hair on the hand and thread on the stocking seeming to vibrate imperceptibly with curiosity and desire. Nicolas’s left hand awkwardly reaches for Judith’s right breast (permission is asked, and granted, at every stage of the act) whilst the two are seated several inches from one another on the edge of the bed. The blocking recalls the civilized, self-restrained physical connection of The Two Fridas (especially considering Mouret’s aforementioned Kahlo-esque characteristics). For a film that can hardly be described as painterly (its spartan beige and white rooms and earth-toned costumes force all sense of character to come strictly from the performers), a startling number of evocative tableaux are struck, all thanks to the actors’ movements and expressions.

Judith and Nicolas soon discover that they can’t stop seeing one another in this new light, and, while all conversation consists of well-reasoned arguments regarding the distinction between romantic love and amicable love, these arguments are punctuated by passionate kisses from which the pair cannot restrain themselves. Nicolas suggests that perhaps they are wrong; that their mathematical minds have not allowed for the possibility that, in the words of Rohmer (via Jerôme in Claire’s Knee), “Basically, love and friendship are the same.” If that is the case, though, where does Claudio fit in? After all, Judith loves her husband. Yet, she begins referring to sleeping with him as “cheating” on Nicolas.

The fluidity with which friendship becomes romantic love and vice versa is echoed in Nicolas’s relationship with his girlfriend, Câline (Frédérique Bel). Her name means “prone to cuddling,” and, from the way Nicolas talks about her, she is clearly just a substitute; a placeholder during the long nights when Judith is with Claudio. It is, thus, a wonderful surprise when we finally meet Câline, gangly and ingenuous like the lovechild of Big Bird and Phoebe Buffay, and discover perhaps the most endearing and funniest character in the film. When Nicolas breaks up with her at a bar, she doesn’t miss a beat before sliding into the role of friend and confidante, making wry observations about love and life to a dumbstruck Nicolas. Seeing her now in a friendly light, he immediately regrets what he has just given up. To a certain extent, Nicolas and Câline, hunched at the bar sucking on the straws of their matching tropical fruit drinks, appear a more appropriate pair than Nicolas and Judith, just as, on the surface, Judith and Claudio are more of an obvious match.

The confluence of friendship and romantic love reaches its zenith when Judith and Nicolas decide to fix up Claudio and Câline, and the tightness of the ensemble cast congeals. Like the quartet in Closer (if in that film, all their intentions had been good rather than evil), these four characters attempt to balance their own desires with the effect of those desires on other people. Try as they might to control their circumstances, they cannot manipulate the feelings of others. They have had to deal with the unpredictable entering into their lives, and now they must deal with the aftermath. During an incredibly moving breakup monologue, Judith explains to Claudio “You’ll still have a part of me, but a small part.” Once he has left her life, she tells Nicolas, “I can’t be happy until Claudio is happy. That’s going to take time.” The part of her she left with Claudio, like the Frida that Diego no longer loved in The Two Fridas, will take time to heal.

Reminiscent of the ending vignette of Chabrol’s Les Bonnes femmes, the last scene of Shall We Kiss? succinctly sums up the entire movie in a brief pantomime. Two people give themselves in a moment of beautiful, aching vulnerability, then, realizing the impossibility of ever fully satiating desire, they walk away.