In the French romantic comedy Delicacy, there is a gorgeous Parisian woman who’s in a semi-permanent state of celibacy after losing her husband. She ignores advances from handsome men, and ultimately chooses a good-natured Swede with poor fashion sense. Everyone who sees the Swede, including the audience, has an Arrested Development moment where they think “Him?” or “Is he funny or something?” But co-writer/director David Foenkinos, working from his novel, makes us believe in the unlikely pair.
Audrey Tautou stars as Nathalie, the grieving widower. Her doomed marriage to Francois (Pio Marmaï) could not seem more idyllic. They are passionate and quirky, the sort of couple who annually recreate their first chance meeting. Francois dies in a car accident (his final interaction with Nathalie is heartbreakingly perfunctory), and she grieves by focusing on her career.
Years pass, and shortly after Nathalie’s boss (Bruno Todeschini) attempts to seduce her, she calls her underling Markus (Francois Damiens) into her office. Their interaction has been strictly professional, so they’re both taken aback when, apropos of nothing, she gives him a long smooch. Not questioning his good fortune, he kisses her right back. They begin a slow courtship, one fraught with setbacks since neither Nathalie’s boss nor her friends understand Markus’ appeal.
In terms of tone and style, parts of Delicacy play out like a low-key version of 500 Days of Summer. Both feature inter-office romance, gorgeously-lit cinematography, and occasional bouts of twee camera-work. Whereas the 500 Days director is more forceful about his flourishes, Foenkinos lets the style service the story, never the other way around. Nathalie and Markus have a split-screen phone call, for example, and the way the camera follows either character is a fanciful visual accompaniment to their current impasse. And after a triumph with Nathalie, we watch Markus in a fanciful riff on the confidence love inspires.
Markus is more emotive than Nathalie – he’s impulsive and up-front about his feelings – yet Damiens downplays the character. In addition to his shabby appearance, he’s more sensitive than the leading man we’re used to, and he finds confidence from unlikely sources (in a hilarious scene, Markus is inspired by an Obama speech). Foenkinos spends a lot of time with Nathalie before Markus even enters the picture, so we understand why she’s so reserved and pensive. Aside from an unexpectedly touching dance sequence, Tautou moves rigidly and with square shoulders, suggesting her curt nature is a product of the grieving process. How the two influence and soften each other is where the movie finds its heart.
Foenkinos makes sure Francois’ memory casts a shadow over nearly every scene. He achieves this through dialogue, especially since Markus cannot understand why his declarations unearth Nathalie’s long-dormant wounds. Markus grasps the situation late into the movie, and Foenkinos conducts the following final scenes with care. We see how a new lover can feel like betrayal, but like the masterful conclusion to The Best of Youth, the romantic transition has the right combination of empathy and tact. Like its namesake, Delicacy can be frail and slight. But its quiet charms may work if, like me, you need little convincing to cheer for a passionate guy in a beige sweater.