The latest thriller from Claude Chabrol is, surprisingly, a French attempt at an overwhelmingly American genre. I don't think the genre has a name, but it always poses the same question -- can I have sex with a crazy woman and walk away unscathed? Made famous by Fatal Attraction and its successors, this special catalog of films is one that American males cherish, because it allows us to work out our natural terror of dominant women and relish the idea that nymphomania may actually exist, if only in short, homicidal bursts. Who knew French men were struggling with the same issues? There are problems with this particular entry in the genre, but they don't lie with the crazy woman at the center, thankfully. Parisian actress Laura Smet perfectly embodies Senta, a fleshy mope who looks like a soiled carbon copy of Kate Winslet, with a broad, Rubenesque frame and snarling lips. Senta is a bridesmaid at the wedding of Sophie (Solène Bouton), sister of the arrow-straight and unadventurous Philippe (Benoit Magimel). Before the cake is cut, Senta is shooting daggers at Philippe and serving up lines like "I wasn't born to have a bad time." To show she's not kidding, she insists on sleeping with him on their first date. It takes a lot of crazy to make a man see the flaws in a woman like that.
Although its clear from the start that Senta is a congenital liar, her lies aren't instantly disprovable or even all that incredible; what causes alarm is the way her mendacity seems to hover over the most basic elements of her life. When someone can't give you the straight dope on where they live, that's usually a bad sign. At various points, she tells Philippe that her parents live upstairs, that her parents are dead, that she actually lives in one of the posh upstairs rooms, and so on. When she seems to be caught in a lie, she wrestles out of it by either acting insulted at having her word questioned or by insisting that she was only joking when making a prior assertion. On her acting career: She straightens her back and looks directly at Philippe while telling him that she once had a "bit part" in a Woody Allen film, and once met John Malkovich but "made him nervous." Uh-huh. "Actress or not, you should write scripts," Philippe mutters at one point. Having cottoned to the idea of wild sex on demand, he's not inclined to push the issue of Senta's issues. His impulse is to just handle the downside; unfortunately, Senta slowly begins to take on the properties of erotic candle wax -- initially good for a sexual distraction but, later, an endurance test.
Chabrol is known for investing his films with the pace of a Parisian union worker two weeks from retirement, and although I would normally be the last one to begrudge him the time it takes to tell his story, in this case the plotting is noticeably thin. Either a film can support its running length or it can't, and it's being charitable to say that The Bridesmaid uses its two hour running time efficiently. The film spends enormous energy and audience goodwill in building up the scaffolding of a quirky romantic drama, only to have the film be unmasked as something much more formulaic. My guess is that Chabrol's inspiration was to combine two Hitchcock thrillers -- Strangers on a Train and Rope -- which is not a bad idea, but it doesn't quite come off. His repeated attempts to knock us off-balance by giving the hero Philippe askew tendencies of his own -- he has a sentimental attachment to a severed statue head and is regarded as strange by his boss -- are unpersuasive. Because of our prior exposure to the ins and outs of this special little genre, we come equipped with educated guesses as to how things will play out, and The Bridesmaid never throws us off the scent. Somehow we can intuit that Magimel's character is what he says he is. He's not warming up in the bullpen for some late-act reversal of character -- this is Senta's show, all the way.
The film's big gag turns out to be that Senta has a Leopold and Loeb complex. She believes, and presses Philippe to believe, that intellectual superiority is conferred on anyone in society who can murder and not get caught. By breaking society's ultimate taboo, she can free herself from its demands altogether -- a sweet victory, since society has dealt her a losing hand all her life. Smet's performance remains compelling throughout the picture, and keeps the film afloat even during these silly developments, which is a testament to her acting. She's very good at wearing Senta's faux-erudite persona; like a person who's been unsuccessfully home-schooled, she's not stupid but has enormous gaps in her education and no respect for social code. She imagines that a murder-secret will be an adhesive bond that can bind her to Philippe much more deeply than some silly wedding ring. If she has evidence that can do him in and he has the same evidence on her, this will make them completely inseparable, forever. Funny, that he doesn't see it that way. Although it ultimately fails as a compelling thriller, this Single French Female does succeed on one level -- it puts a finger on a crucial difference between men and women. A man will always be grudgingly willing to date a foaming moonbat if she also happens to be a sex-starved, foaming moonbat.