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International House of Pancake

Have you heard? Beauty's only skin deep. Pay attention now: When it comes to love, experience is the best teacher. And just in case you didn't know: Youth is wasted on the young.Such are the banalities director Tonie Marshall dispenses, more or less, in Venus Beauty Institute, a French romantic...
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Have you heard? Beauty's only skin deep. Pay attention now: When it comes to love, experience is the best teacher. And just in case you didn't know: Youth is wasted on the young.

Such are the banalities director Tonie Marshall dispenses, more or less, in Venus Beauty Institute, a French romantic comedy that might cause you to ask when the great tradition of French romantic comedy jumped the tracks and crashed into the ditch. The winner of five major Cesars (France's equivalent of the Academy Awards), this is the most honored film of the year in the land of Chanel and Chirac. But why? At best, it's an intermittently amusing and occasionally insightful meditation on the terrors of middle age and the delusions of the human animal, decorated with some wry jokes. It's hard to imagine its being installed at the Cinematheque Française next to the works of François Truffaut and Louis Malle.

Still, you take what you can get in a time when importation of decent European movies has slowed to a trickle. The saving grace of Venus -- and its centerpiece -- is a terrific, heartfelt performance by veteran actress Nathalie Baye, who portrays a 40-year-old beautician, Angèle, who spends her workdays at the salon of the title slathering her vain customers in skin-repair serum and serenity no-blotch and her nights battling the demons of her own shattered romances. Angèle has done it all and felt it all -- crushed hopes, dashed dreams, forlorn flings -- so now she's taken refuge in wary detachment. The next lying opportunist who comes down the Champs-Elysées won't get a free ride with this heroine. "Love makes me sick and mean," she says. "I've opted out."

Baye has worked with most major French directors, scored audience points here a decade and a half ago in The Return of Martin Guerre, and in Venus again demonstrates the range and subtlety of her skills. First and last she's a grown-up, equipped with the full range of emotions that only a grown-up can command. We feel for Angèle, and that's the most crucial thing you can say about any character.

What happens to her in Venus may not be uniquely French, but you'd probably associate it more with Paris than Peoria. A handsome younger man, Antoine (Samuel Le Bihan), approaches Angèle at the corner cafe and simply throws himself at her. The other day, he explains, he caught one glimpse of her at the station, and since then he's been able to think of nothing else. He's crazy with passion. Smitten by love at first sight. He'll do anything for her.

For a woman who has plenty of scars on her résumé, this is not good news. What deceptions lurk beneath Antoine's outrageous declarations of love? Can this romantic idealist mean half of what he says? Is the guy certifiably nuts? Armored by experience, Angèle retreats. But as we all know (sitting there in the dark with our popcorn), this is not the end of the story. Even in a world where lotions and potions and mud masks obscure the facts of life, the human heart continues to beat. One way or another, the worthy adventurer gets up off the mat and gives love one last shot.

Angèle's romantic trials, salted with comedy, are director Marshall's main concern. But to keep us entertained, she also conjures up a gallery of eccentric supporting characters. The proprietor of Venus Beauty Institute is a bossy blonde of a certain age (Bulle Ogier) who's dedicated to the reclamation of sagging flesh. Among the employees, two air-headed twentysomethings, unaware of the identity crises that may someday befall them, chatter on about the grotesqueries of the women they massage and manipulate. The more interesting of the two, Marie (Audrey Tautou), has already taken up with a sugar daddy and hasn't a care in the world once he encircles her lovely, unwrinkled neck with rubies as big as the Ritz.

The Institute's patrons are a desperately amusing lot -- or are supposed to be. Statuesque Madame Buisse parades naked before the picture window en route to her obsessive sessions on the tanning bed. The recipients of assorted seaweed wraps and applications of magical gauze will pay any price for their illusions of eternal youth. An injured airline pilot has had his face repaired using skin his wife donated from her butt. The occasional idiot wanders in presuming the place is another sort of massage parlor.

For our Angèle, who has always liked helping others, it's now time to help herself, and Marshall sees to that -- with a little help from a brace of co-screenwriters, Marion Venoux and Jacques Audiard. The on-again, off-again romance between Antoine and Angèle, complicated by the fact that he happens to be engaged to another woman, unfolds with deft wit, and it's flavored with little ironies. But in the end, it's still difficult to see why this reasonably charming but slight film has won such widespread praise. Perhaps the Cesar voters overdosed on the serenity no-blotch.

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