Julie Delpy’s Lolo is a maternal horror film in the guise of a light romantic comedy, and therein lies much of its charm. Delpy plays Violette, a 40-something single mother who has long soured on dating when, during a getaway in Biarritz, she meets Jean-René (Dany Boon), a loyal, bumbling financial-software engineer. A few deft cuts later, the two are an item, and he’s moved to Paris to be closer to her. But in between them comes Violette’s 19-year-old son Eloi, aka Lolo (Vincent Lacoste). He sees Jean-René as a “big-eared hick” and finds the idea of dear, sweet mum incessantly texting and cooking for this “Biarritz bumpkin” nauseating. The boy sets out to destroy the relationship however he can: running incriminating Google searches on Jean-René’s computer, lining the man’s clothes with itching powder, spiking his Champagne with tranquilizers.
Lolo is a delectably monstrous creation, a figure of childhood dependence curdled into Oedipal lunacy. Lacoste, with his pursed lips and aristocratic calm, gives the kid an eerie, calculating menace; we can feel the resentment boiling within him. He tells mom that he thinks Jean-René’s pretty cool one minute and confides his intentions to destroy the man to his friend Lulu (Antoine Lounguine) in the next, all without breaking expression. The comic tension between the eager-to-please boyfriend and the scheming mama’s boy — with loving, unsuspecting Violette caught in the middle — is beautiful, even kind of chilling.
In previous films, like her culture-clash rom-com cycle 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York, Delpy blended broadly comic setups with believable, acutely drawn characters. Here, Lolo’s shenanigans and Jean-René’s humiliations escalate to ridiculous levels. That can make for some jarring moments — some viewers will feel whipsawed between realism and silliness — but Delpy sells it well, thanks to her feel for how people actually live: Look at the way she uses work as an inroad to her characters' inner selves.
Most comedies are content to treat characters' professions as blunt, monolithic shorthand: What you do is who you are. Violette is a producer of high-end fashion events, the kind attended by snooty models and designers, and we see how that bleeds into her daily life. She can be precise, obsessive, judgmental, uptight … but then she’ll catch herself and become gentle and apologetic. Delpy shows people in a continuum: Like most of us, they struggle, they give in, they react, they’re one way one moment and then they course-correct. It all feels organic, as if we’re discovering her characters as they discover themselves.
Delpy also understands how to stage a comic set piece without giving in to shtick or zaniness. Maybe it costs her some belly laughs — Lolo is a funny movie, though rarely a hilarious one — but it lends the film authenticity. At one of Violette’s parties, an unwittingly drunk Jean-René goes all wobbly around Karl Lagerfeld and his entourage and, egged on by the scheming Lolo, starts taking selfies with the designer. We cringe at even the barest contact of shoulders between our intoxicated hero and the sneering fashionistas surrounding him. But the humiliation is as much in our imagination as it is onscreen — the sign of a director in full command of her material.
That’s the good news. The (minor) bad news is that Lolo can be a bit too much. At times, you might wonder whether Delpy is trying to cram in two decades’ worth of comic subgenres. Amid all the embarrassment, deadpan scheming and romance, Violette keeps up a raunchy running dialogue with her sexed-up best friend Ariane (Karin Viard) that at its best is a refreshing portrait of grown-up female frankness, and at its worst plays like a cut-rate attempt at Sex and the City–style banter. But even there, the director understands when to pull back. We learn at one point that Jean-René is rather well-endowed. A lesser comedy would never stop mining that, eventually turning it into a wearisome, repetitive gag. Delpy uses it to inform her characters, gets a good chuckle or two out of it and then moves on to the next thing. Lolo is a fun, airy movie, but it’s also unafraid of complexity.