||"Salon" would certainly be a more attractive English rendering of the last word in the title than the one which Lot 47 has decided to employ in their stateside release of Tonie Marshall's comedy-drama "Venus Beaute Institut," but that's a minor blemish on a picture which, while almost aggressively French in tone and style, is nonetheless an affecting, if fragile and flawed, meditation on the realities of romance and aging.
The picture centers on the staff and customers at a neighborhood beauty parlor, and in particular Angele (Nathalie Baye, remembered as the deserted wife in "The Return of Martin Guerre"), at forty the oldest of the three girls working in the establishment. The script opens with a sequence showing Angele being rather unceremoniously dumped by an arrogant fellow with whom she's had a few days' pleasure (and has obviously expected a long-term relationship); that sequence, and some later conversations between the woman and a scarred friend (Jacques Bonnaffe) for whose injuries she apparently feels responsible (and for whom she has some unreciprocated desire), show us a person in need of human contact but at the same time fearful of it. Fortunately- -or not--the unpleasant break-up has been witnessed by a younger man, Antoine (Samuel Le Bihan), who falls madly in love with Angele despite the fact that he's engaged to a much younger woman. The narrative thread running through "Venus Beauty Institute" is whether Angele can overcome her reservations and accept Antoine's advances.
Swirling around this central romantic possibility are others involving her co-workers, the 20-year old Marie (Audrey Tautou) who's gently seduced by a much older widower (Robert Hossein) and the flighty (and as it turns out suicidal) Samantha (Mathilde Seigner), as well as the shop's owner Nadine (Bulle Ogier). None of the relationships are portrayed in obvious or overly explicit fashion; as is characteristic of this sort of arty French fare, everything is expressed elliptically and obliquely, so that the emotions are always somewhat clouded and uncertain (as, to tell the truth, are some of the motivations).
Whether you enjoy the picture, therefore, will depend a great deal on whether you're inclined to savor this sort of mood piece, which relishes suggestion rather than declamation and is happy to leave loose ends unresolved and use supporting characters simply for the picturesque relish they add to the mix. For this viewer, it goes seriously awry only at the very end, when a melodramatic climax tries to generate some false suspense and a tacked-on "magical" final shot fails to have the intended uplifting effect. Before then, however, Marshall is generally successful in maintaining interest and keeping a slyly insinuating atmosphere, helped greatly by the lovely setting of the shop itself (the wisp of harp music that's set off every time its door opens is a motif that becomes almost hypnotic) and even more by the knowing, ultimately touching performance of Baye. Less controlled and impassive than in "Martin Guerre," she remains a radiant presence even when she's supposed to seem plain and ordinary. Baye is ably seconded by Le Bihan, who manages to keep us as uncertain of his ultimate intentions as Angele is.
"Venus Beauty Institute" doesn't reach the heights of the best French fare dealing with the vagaries of l'amour, but in its gentle, wispy way it succeeds in evoking the mysterious nature of romance better than most Hollywood entries on the subject.