For about its first 15 minutes, David and Stéphane Foenkinos’ debut feature, Delicacy, looks like it’s going to be that rare down-to-earth screen romance: about a happy couple who get hitched and then deal with meddling in-laws, work stress, and all the other minor aggravations that make the early years of marriage such an adventure. Instead, Delicacy’s sweet opening scenes are just establishing a baseline, showing us what protagonist Audrey Tautou loses when her husband is fatally struck by a car while out for a jog. And then the scenes that immediately follow his death—in which Tautou decides to overcome her grief by becoming a dynamo at her job—establishes another baseline, showing what she complicates when she impulsively jumps into a relationship with awkward Swede François Damiens a couple of years later.
Delicacy strikes an odd tone, moving not-always-smoothly from realistic observations about loneliness and affection to fanciful expressions of love’s overpowering emotions. The Foenkinos swirl the camera around Tautou and her doomed husband after he proposes to her, and they skip across days, months, and years with clever transitions, matching gestures from one time to another, all while employing a tinkly music-box score. But then they’ll drop the quirks altogether and watch quietly as Tautou stumbles across the book she was reading when she heard the news about the accident, or they’ll spend time with Tautou and her best friend, who’s worried that she can’t tell Tautou about her pregnancy without upsetting her. The movie is caught between the poignancy of the everyday and the exaggerations of fiction.
The latter especially takes hold when Tautou’s jealous boss (Bruno Todeschini) decides to interfere with her new relationship. The Foenkinos overplay Damiens’ homeliness throughout, making it seem like Tautou’s public affection for someone so schlubby is some kind of radical act. And yet whenever it seems that Delicacy is getting too broad—as in a sequence where a giddy Damiens walks down the street and imagines himself as a chick-magnet, like in a body-spray commercial—the Foenkinos come back with something genuinely moving, including a graceful final moment in which Damiens imagines the entire arc of Tautou’s life. Everything that’s well-observed and frustrating about Delicacy can be summed up in a brief scene of Damiens and Tautou chatting online. Before they begin, Damiens sprays cologne on himself, which is a dopey, unnecessary gag. It says much more about who he is that while Tautou’s avatar is a photo of herself, his is the generic human outline. More of that latter kind of detail and less of the former would’ve made Delicacy something truly special.