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Joy of Singing, The
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by Jay Seaver

"... and spies, and silliness, and sex."
4 stars

There are music and voice lessons in "The Joy of Singing", but there's also sex. And spies. And screwball strangeness. It's a leftover stew of a movie, with filmmaker Ilan Duran Cohen apparently throwing in whatever bits of story caught his fancy and coming out with a droll, if occasionally bizarre, comedy.

Arms dealer Hans Muller has recently died, which is a problem for a great many people, as he was moving a shipment of uranium at the time. French Intelligence believes that a USB card with information on who purchased it may be in the hands of his widow, Constance (Jeanne Balibar), so they task a pair of agents to get close to her: Muriel (Marina Fois), thirty-five and starting to worry about her inability to conceive, and Philippe (Lorant Deutsch), her much younger partner and lover. The easiest way to get close appears to be the singing class she takes from opera singer Eve (Evelyne Kirschenbaum), but everyone else has the same idea: Anna (Caroline Ducey) is probably with Israeli or Russian intelligence, Xavier (Eytan Kirch) with another agency, and Julien (Julien Baumgartner) is a prostitute hired by Reza (Frederic Karakozian), a bear of an Iranian. They've got their work cut out for them, because while Constance seems to be an airhead fortunate to have married well and been widowed relatively young, her sister-in-law Nomie (Nathalie Richard) thinks it's an act and she murdered her husband.

If it's an act, it's an amusingly convincing one. We get a sense of this character and the movie's general sense of humor early on, when she's walking out of Eve's building and has her purse snatched. Instead of panic or terror, there's a confused look on her face that says "again?", and that's before we learn that, no, this is not the first time her bag has been stolen or her apartment searched. The film is one long, Gallic shrug at increasingly absurd situations, a laugh at how ineffectual the authorities are and how the ditzy Constance is seemingly able to just drift through, apparently unharmed and unaffected by the dead bodies and strange entanglements appearing in her wake.

This movie probably wouldn't be possible without the simple yet brilliant comic performance of Jeanne Balibar. Constance requires a very particular balance of sex kitten and child-like innocence, both exaggerated but neither making the other unpleasant, and Balibar finds that balance in a breathy voice, a trusting face, and quick responses that make the character appear to have an instinct for getting along with others no matter how ignorant or oblivious she appears to be. There's a joix de vivre to her, as well as that's thoroughly charming and keeps the movie fairly light, even if the rest of the cast is rather grim.

Take Marina Fois's Muriel; she rarely cracks a smile, even when pulling her handsome and henpecked partner into bed. She's often absurd in how dour she comes off, constantly self-examining and grumbling about her low self-esteem in the midst of this sort of crisis. She's probably only kind of funny by herself, but by turns melancholy and hilarious in a world that also includes Constance. Lorant Deutsch is an amusing variation on the straight man as Philippe, sexually overwhelmed as well as a little uncomfortable with Muriel's tendency to grouse and overshare. And Julien Baumgartner is a bona fide scene-stealer, playing his character as smugly cocky one moment and hilariously insecure the next - the fact that he's 29, kind of long in the tooth for a male prostitute, is weighing on him.

Which it maybe shouldn't within the confines of this film; Cohen and co-writer Philippe Lasry aren't shy about celebrating the mature physique as much as the younger one. I suspect that Deutsch shows the least skin out of all the characters who get involved in the bedhopping. There's enough equal-opportunity nudity for a sex comedy double-feature (and I'm pretty sure one scene would need a dollop or two less to get past America's MPAA), although it's funnier and more clever than being mere exploitation. The increasingly screwy couplings serve to make this intelligence farce more amusingly ridiculous, although Cohen and company never quite track of the plot to the extent that moving it forward seems like an obligation.

And, yes, there's music as well, and as a bit more than a means to an end. After all, a spy story needs to take place somewhere, and after the double-crossing and potential heartbreak, the characters must find delight somewhere, so why not in their music?

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=18771&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/30/10 13:47:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.

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