Another well-oiled piece of comic machinery from Francis Veber, “The Valet” isn’t as incisive or hilarious as “The Closet,” but it’s still winning enough, one of those French confections that makes you wonder why so many Hollywood farces are so lame by comparison.
The set-up is both simple and very clever. Wealthy businessman Pierre Levasseur (Daniel Auteuil) is having an affair with supermodel Elena (Alice Taglioni)—a very dangerous thing, since his financial wellbeing rests on the tolerance of his wife Christine (Kristen Scott Thomas), who actually owns the industrial empire he directs at her sufferance. When a paparazzi photographs him and his mistress on the street, Levasseur and his lawyer, Foix (Richard Berry), hit upon a scheme that might save his hide. By chance a mope named Francois Pignon (Gad Elmaleh) was passing by the couple when the photograph was taken. If Elena would pretend to be in a romantic relationship with him, maybe Christine could be fooled and her philandering husband’s position saved.
So Francois and Elena are approached with the proposition. She agrees, with economic strings attached, having already determined that Levasseur is unlikely ever to divorce his wife and looking forward to some mischievous fun at his expense—in every way. Francois, meanwhile, a put-upon valet parking attendant at a ritzy restaurant across from the Eiffel Tower, has just had his marriage proposal rebuffed by his long-time sweetheart Emilie (Virginie Lodoyen), who’s gone into deep debt to open a bookshop, so he’s game.
Most of the comic juice results from the incongruous linkup of the sad-faced Francois and the voluptuous Elena (who moves into his shabby apartment), and from Levasseur’s increasingly fury over the notion that they might actually be getting it on, even as Christine toys with her husband over the pretense and Emilie begins to wonder whether she’s made a real blunder. All five leads seem to be having great fun with their parts, with Auteuil and Taglioni in particular standing out for his volcanic outbursts and her knowing smiles. But strong supporting characters add to the flavorful mix: Francois’ loving parents (Michel Jonasz and Michele Garcia); Maria (Irina Ninova), Emilie’s friend and confidante; Francois’ sloppy roommate Richard (Dany Boon). And still others—a couple of private detectives, a cell-phone entrepreneur with the hots for Emilie, Francois’ fellow parking attendant. Best of all, though, is Michel Aumont, who is wonderfully snappish as the Pignon family doctor (and Emilie’s father) who has his patients caring for him rather than the reverse.
Presiding over it all, and juggling all the characters dexterously, is Veber, who’s once again constructed a witty, elegantly-detailed script and then directed it with elan and economy (the whole thing clocks in at a mere 85 minutes, thanks to editor Georges Klotz—and boasts a very satisfying, if unlikely, topper at the very close). And it’s been neatly packaged, with Robert Fraisse’s cinematography making good use of the Parisian locations, especially those by the Eiffel Tower, and Alexandre Desplat contributing another in his increasingly long string of distinctively different scores.
The result is another piece of comic clockwork precision by a gifted filmmaker, or—to use an analogy a Frenchman might prefer—the moviegoing equivalent of a light but delicious desert pastry.