Love, betrayal, loneliness, and sex are just some of the shallow themes that Tonie Marshall’s French drama Venus Beauty Institute (1999) dives into, leaving you with this profound desire to seek answers to personal struggles with these notions as he creates a tight bond between the audience and his characters. The film begins with Angèle (Nathalie Baye), a 40-year-old beautician, sitting outside a cafe with her current interest, talking at him about life, love, the future, anything her mind grasps onto and feels relevant to share (even if it is too much), but he unfortunately does not feel the same way. When Angèle finally gives this man a few seconds to talk he takes advantage of it and breaks up with her. Meanwhile, a young man named Antoine is sitting at the table behind this catastrophe and immediately falls in love with Angèle. Somehow I feel only the French can get away with banal phrase “love at first sight,” and Antoine goes through great efforts in pursuing Angèle, confessing his love and desire to be with her.
The only problem is that Angèle is a woman at least ten years older than Antoine (who just happens to be engaged) and is not interested in a long-term relationship. She is always seeking meaningless sexual encounters everywhere she goes. It is quite impressive actually, the ways that she is able to choose a man, sit down, converse, and then suggest they head out together. I guess with age comes more assurance with one’s appearance and ability to attract the opposite sex, however the life she leads is rather forlorn because she is unable to keep any stability other than her job. The tragic thing is is that she convinces herself that she does not want this security and wears a masks that presents a false contentment.
Angèle is a strong yet fragile woman who is constantly being told she is too skinny, which reflects the weak state of her love life. The only thing she displays great strength in (other than sex) is her work as a beautician. She spends her days selling a marketed idea of beauty convincing others it will make you feel better about yourself and keep any man content, yet she is not the product of her sales. She is elegant and naturally beautiful, never wearing a face with tart make-up or dressing inappropriately, which many of her clients do. Her co-workers, Samantha and Marie, as well as her boss Nadine, are all products of what they sell, but relay small narratives in the salon that are entertaining and engaging.
Marie, played by celebrated French actress Audrey Tautou (this was before her rise to fame in her role as Amelie), is the youngest of the bunch, still learning the ropes and possessing the beauty of youth. She falls for one of her clients who is a much older man who spoils her with an array of gifts left by his deceased wife and also provides her with generous tips. Angèle tries to warn her about the dangers of falling in love, but Marie takes them with a grain of salt and pursues this chance for love. She is not disappointed. Samantha on the other hand is always at war with Nadine, as the two bicker and throw insults at each others like daggers, each one cutting a little deeper at the self-esteem they worked so hard to build.
The best part of the film is the ending and how it is juxtaposed with the beginning. As I said before, it commences with a shattered relationship because the love was unrequited, but the ending is much more exhilarating and flashier, yet completely plausible. It is New Years Eve and Angèle is closing the salon. Antoine walks in with a gift for her, a beautiful dress to wear out to celebrate a new year and perhaps a rejuvenated love. The camera is positioned across the street so the audience is not permitted to hear any of the dialogue and can only see what is a standard pedestrian would see passing by the shop. While these Angèle and Antoine are sharing a beautiful moment together, Antoine’s ex-fiance saunters into the shop on a mission. She pulls out a gun with the intention of killing, but Antoine pushes her arm towards the ceiling where a bullet hits the lights, resulting in sparks and flashes flying everywhere. As the ex rushes from the salon, Angèle and Antoine embrace while sparks literally fly.
This film was awarded the César Award (French version of the Academy Awards) for Best Film, Best Director, as well as Best Writing, so it is not just me who is completely enthralled by the authenticity and honesty found throughout the film. Again, I am moved to believe that France has the best films. Bon santé!