Venus Beauty Institute
Venus Beauty Institute arrives in America after nearly sweeping the French César Awards (best director, best picture, best screenplay, and an acting nod), but the film itself doesn't deserve the accolades. A modest, minor melodrama that grows weaker as it grows longer, Venus Beauty Institute stars Nathalie Baye (also starring in An Affair Of Love) as a lonely and aging beautician ironically surrounded by people she must make look and feel better. Having hurt others and been hurt herself in the past, she can't seem to find a lasting romance. Bitter but still searching, Baye settles on furtive little affairs and vicarious experiences courtesy of her salon coworkers (the usual sitcom archetypes: the matriarch, the naïve new girl, and the brash one) until a stranger (Jacques Bonnaffé) suddenly professes his love for her. Once again, Baye must decide whether it's worth the risk to lower her defenses, but the complications of everyday modern life conspire to keep the two lovers apart. Writer-director Tonie Marshall populates the salon with a familiar collection of oddballs, eccentrics, and mysterious visitors (look for Claire Denis as one patron), but the quirks seem contrived. Marshall is better at expressing the contradictions of Baye's character, who's the pinnacle of stoic feminist independence, but also extremely vulnerable. Whenever she leaves the salon to roam the streets of Paris, the movie perks up, if only because the city's grungy shadows and bright lights are more interesting than the brightly lit environs and forced levity of her workplace. The final scene, however, is so stunningly shot that it's almost enough to make you forget the familiar plodding that preceded it.