Grade: C

Claude Lelouch probably had a good deal of fun making this bittersweet crime-and-romance confection, which was shot in exotic locales and boasts references not only to the director’s own previous pictures but also to those of other formidable filmmakers (Hitchcock perhaps being the most obvious). It’s a pity that a similar degree of enjoyment hasn’t passed over to the audience. “And Now Ladies And Gemtlemen” is two-plus hours of Gallic affectation, one of those French films that tries to be crisp and tantalizing but proves more a soggy cinematic souffle.

Jeremy Irons, even more dour and sullen than usual, plays a character named Valentine Valentine–presumably as a nod to his turn as Humbert Humbert in Adrian Lyne’s version of “Lolita.” Valentine is a gentleman thief working on the Riviera, rather like Cary Grant’s character did in “To Catch a Thief.” But he doesn’t go the cat burglar route. His modus operandi is much more intellectual: he cons jewelry shop owners out of their goods. In the job we’re first shown, he poses as a cop tracking an elderly robber. He wants to catch the fellow in the act, he explains, and so asks the proprietor to turn over the baubles to the crook when he shows up. Then, of course, he disguises himself in old man’s makeup, pulls the job, and gets away scot-free. This job, as it turns out, secures him not only the loot but a wife in the person of Francoise (Alesaandra Martines), a young clerk in the shop.

Some years later, however, Valentine is bent on retirement, and leaves Francoise behind to be romanced by a family friend (Thierry Lhermitte) while he undertakes a voyage he’s long dreamed of–sailing alone around the world in the titular yacht. He’s troubled by unexplained blackouts, however, and eventually finds himself in Morocco, where he meets chanteuse Jane Lester (Patricia Kaas), who’s fled from an unhappy affair in Paris to the African coast. She too suffers from blackouts, it seems, and while both undergo medical tests to determine the cause, they go on a trek together to a local shrine which promises cures to pilgrims. Jane also provides Valentine with an alibi for a hotel robbery which a local cop (Amidou) is trying to pin on him. There’s also a subplot involving a cafe-owning boxer (Ticky Holgado), his wife (Sylvie Loeillet) and a handsome stranger they hire as a handyman (Yvan Attal), who has sticky fingers too, as well as another featuring the countess whose jewels are stolen (Claudia Cardinale), her husband and a younger paramour.

What Lelouch seems to be aiming at is a romantic roundelay featuring a variety of interconnected couples, but the complicated melange never takes wing. The Irons-Kaas relationship is the only one that’s treated very attentively, and still it remains sadly undernourished, with his rather sodden manner never meshing with her sultrier allure. There’s some promise in the Martines-Lhermitte pairing–their scenes together have a welcome playfulness–but nothing much is made of it. And the Holgado-Loeillet-Attal configuration remains little more than an afterthought.

As is customary with Lelouch’s films, “And Now Ladies and Gentlemen” is slickly packaged. The locations are impressive, and Pierre-William Glenn’s cinematography captures them nicely, Michel Legrand’s music does its part, too. But this is the sort of picture that needs to be magical, and Lelouch’s touch proves just too heavy to enliven his old tricks.