As the saying goes, the French they are a funny race, and never more so than when they are making romantic comedies. In the movies of most other countries, certainly in the US, romance, sex, lust – whatever you want to call it – is a fact of life like eating and sleeping and complaining about the weather. It's something you do, not something you spend a lot of time talking about.
In French movies, by contrast, ardor is practically a branch of philosophy. Couplings are preceded, and followed, by high-flown prattle. In "Shall We Kiss?" the latest example of this peculiarly Gallic syndrome, the act is deconstructed to a fare-thee-well. The film, with apologies to Joan Rivers, should have been called "Can We Talk?"
It all starts out innocently enough in Nantes, where Émilie (Julie Gayet) and Gabriel (Michaël Cohen) meet as strangers. Both already have mates but are deeply attracted to each other. They come close to kissing before Émilie sounds the alarm. She recounts to Gabriel, in the flashback that constitutes most of the movie, the bittersweet story of a married woman, Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), and her best friend Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret, who also wrote and directed), both acquaintances of Émilie's, and the kiss between them that turned out to be more than a kiss.
Judith works as a lab researcher and is married to a handsome and wealthy Parisian pharmacist. Nicolas, a high school math teacher, has a geeky adorableness. He complains to her that his romances lack "physical affection" and when she suggests he try things out with a prostitute, we get a very funny flashback-within-a-flashback where we see him attempting just that. (The hooker doesn't want to be kissed on the mouth and seems to know more about math than he does.) Inevitably, Nicolas very tentatively asks Judith to be his physical affection coach, and soon both are smitten.
Not without cause, Mouret has been compared, as writer-director-actor, to a young Woody Allen. Like Mouret, Allen often makes talking about sex more important than the sex act itself. The carnal knowledge in his movies is mostly cerebral. But Allen's self-obsessiveness can be fairly nutty and high-strung; Mouret's woebegone Nicolas, by contrast, is low-key. He seems to be walking around in a trance, and not only because he's in love. He looks as if he was moonstruck from birth. (This is likely what attracts Judith.)
Mouret, as writer-director, has also been mentioned alongside Éric Rohmer, but here I think the comparison is off. Rohmer ("My Night at Maud's") typically features brainy talkathons doubling as instruction manuals in morality. Dry wit is his style. For Mouret, the instruction manual is more like a comic book. As with Allen, the humor is usually a compound of verbal and physical slapstick. The most passionate thing about him is his foolishness.
If you have a hankering for a pretty good Woody Allen movie and want to brush up on your French at the same time, "Shall We Kiss?" is the ticket. Grade: B (Unrated.)