Going to see a French comedy at a film festival can be a dicey proposition. Sometimes they're really funny; other times, the French humor just falls flat with American audiences. In Quatre Etoiles (Four Stars), the humor meter was pretty much on, although certain aspects of the film seemed to rub the liberal Seattle crowd the wrong way.
When Franssou (played by the lovely and very charming Isabelle Carré) inherits €50,000 from an aunt, she's torn over what to do with the windfall. Spend it all traveling around the world? Save it frugally? Her boring, middle-aged boyfriend wants Franssou to buy him a mattress and save the rest. Franssou, wisely, decides instead to dump the boyfriend and take off on a luxurious trip to Cannes, where she holes up in the Ritz Carlton and proceeds to enjoy herself immensely.
It isn't long before her path crosses that of Stéphane Lachesnaye (José Garcia), a smooth-talking, well-dressed cur who practically has "con man" tattooed on his forehead. Franssou first encounters Stéphane when he enters her hotel suite with a staff member while she is taking a bath. Stéphane ostentatiously bosses everyone around and proclaims himself to be the assistant of Elton John, there at the Carlton to check out the lay of the land and determine if it is suitable for His Elton-ness. The hotel staff buys his routine hook, line and sinker and soon has them at his beck and call.
When Franssou sees Stéphane at the bank the next day, going by another name, she becomes intrigued and follows him around. When the two of them eventually connect, Stéphane gets Franssou drunk on champagne and then abandons her far from her hotel after ruthlessly twisting her arm to find out why she followed him. He's had a bad day of it; he's been trying to sell a luxury villa he doesn't actually own to René (François Cluzet), a stupid but likable (and extremely wealthy) Formula One race car driver, who is looking for a villa with a garage big enough to house his collection of spendy cars. The deal has fallen through -- and poor Stéphane owes €30,000 on a gambling debt that must be paid by the next day, or else.
After Franssou makes her way back to the hotel, the two connect again, and when he learns of her inheritance, Stéphane charms her into agreeing to loan him the €30,000 he needs to pay back his gambling debt. Naturally, he has no intention of ever paying her back, but Franssou outwits him, demanding a written IOU note with a promise to pay the loaned amount back, with substantial interest. In addition, Franssou declares that she will stick to Stéphane like glue until he pays her what he owes her. This drives Stéphane, who prefers to work alone, with no attachments, crazy. Everything about Franssou irritates him -- especially the way she asks if he wants to kiss her.
However, Stéphane decides Franssou might be useful when she meets René, who promptly falls head-over-heels in love with her. If Franssou can convince René to buy the villa, Stéphane will be able to pay her back and get rid of her. Trouble is ... now he's not so sure he wants to. Quatre Etoiles is a a fun little crime caper, and the chemistry between Carré and Garcia really drives the film. One could easily picture this couple becoming the center of a franchise of films in France. The Seattle crowd I saw the film with seemed to like the film overall, but the film has a bit of a mean, misogynistic edge to it that turned a lot of people off. Stéphane is callous, cruel and abusive to Franssou, and yet she takes it all, smiling, and wants him all the more. Even after he hits her across the face in the hotel lobby, she doesn't defend herself and still pursues him (after that scene, several folks walked out of the theater).
The film is shot in Cannes, which is a beautiful backdrop, and helmer Christian Vincent, who co-wrote the script with Olivier Dazat, tightly directs his actors, and keeps the pace moving along as one would expect of a caper film. Quatre Etoiles is somewhat controversial, to be sure, but ultimately Carré's charm and vivacity keep it from feeling overly dark. Franssou puts up with an unbelievable amount of abuse from Stéphane, but in the end, she turns the tables and shows that she -- much to his surprise -- is really the one in control.