There's a scene halfway through the French romantic melodrama Delicacy that perfectly encapsulates its uneasy fusion of whimsy and heartache. Two Parisian workmates, Natalie and Markus, are taking a walk through the enchanting city after their first dinner date, which has gone well so far. As Natalie pauses on a bridge, the Eiffel Tower erupts in a brilliant shudder of sparkling lights behind her -- a flattering backdrop for mere mortals, but set against the face of Audrey Tautou, the charming pixie of Amelie, it's something otherworldly. Poor Markus, overwhelmed by the prospect of falling in love, simply turns on his heels and runs away at full speed.
There's context to all this quirkiness, of course. After spending the past three years mourning her husband's sudden death in a jogging accident, Natalie is only just peeking out from under a shroud of grief. Dating someone with that kind of baggage -- let alone being the first to do it -- would make any potential suitor fret, but the shy, hyper-neurotic Markus, played by Francois Damiens, is especially freaked by it. A gawky, pratfalling Swede with a wardrobe full of Cosby sweaters, Markus isn't used to getting respect from people, much less romantic interest from a woman of Natalie's luminescence.
First-time directors David and Stephane Foenkinos, working from David's novel La Delicatesse, have fatally contrary impulses. They want to create a bright, airy romantic bauble, worthy of Tautou's status as the avatar of Paris at its most improbably magical. Yet they have to grapple with feelings that puncture the mood -- feelings of immense loneliness and loss, of awkwardness and inadequacy, of Natalie's ex becoming an invisible third party in a pairing that doesn't make sense to anyone else. They fight hard to keep the atmosphere light, but the necessity of fighting at all makes it impossible. What they wind up with is neither here nor there, a romantic comedy burdened by tragedy and a drama slathered in heavy gloss.
The early scenes could be outtakes from Amelie, were Tautou the one receiving love rather than orchestrating it with a twinkle in her eye. The Foenkinoses stage Natalie's first love as something out of a storybook, with her and the handsome Francois (Pio Marmai) meeting over apricot juice in a cafe and being whisked along effortlessly to a wedding that looks to be taking place under a snow globe. They're young, gorgeous and impossibly happy. They're ready to start a family. They even get along famously with both sets of in-laws. The universe has to redress the balance.
When fate deals Natalie its heavy hand, she pours herself into her work in a vaguely defined role at a vaguely defined international firm. While skirting the advances of her lascivious boss (Bruno Todeschini), Natalie finds herself drawn one day to Markus, a shy bumbler who doesn't know how to react when she strides out from behind her desk and plants one on him. His wardrobe alone suggests that he's the type of guy who's long since resigned to the bachelor life, so this kind of attention unnerves him.
Tautou and Damiens are an adorable pair, all the more so for being such an odd physical contrast -- she the slight, porcelain French beauty, he an ungainly, hirsute giant who looks profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin. And the filmmakers easily conjure a swooning romantic ambience, which may not be terribly difficult in Paris, but extends to other areas like Emilie Simon's score, built around percussive chimes that seem to carry the film a foot off the ground.
Yet Delicacy is phony in ways that might seem drearily familiar to audiences weaned on American romantic comedies. In the interest of keeping things light, the Foenkinoses try to minimize the dramatic obstacles that they themselves had put into place. They treat Natalie and Markus less like wounded adults than wayward children who have been knocked back on destiny's golden path. Their opposites-attract love isn't just unlikely. It's unreal. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.