France (1996) Dir. Gilles Mimouni
You can rest easy; the French haven’t done the unthinkable and remade Billy Wilder’s classic The Apartment, although themes of secret romances blossoming in a bijou abode are shared elements of both plots. Aside from that, these two films couldn’t be more dissimilar.
Max (Vincent Cassel) is the promising new star in his company and is literally on his way to Tokyo for a business trip when he hears the voice of his former love Lisa (Monica Bellucci) in a café phone booth. Max gets just the briefest glimpse of Lisa as she flees the café but it is enough for him to secretly postpone his flight to Japan and pursue his erstwhile former flame, who suddenly left without a word a few years earlier.
With the key Lisa dropped in the café, Max lets himself into her apartment, finding obscure clues about her current life. One night when Max is in the apartment, he is disturbed by someone else arriving. From behind, she looks like Lisa but while her name is the same, she is a different girl. Despite this awkward meeting Max and this Lisa (Romane Bohringer) begin a relationship that is destined to end in heartbreak.
The only film by architect and writer Gilles Mimouni, L’Appartement is a deceptive beast, initially promising little more than a typically smug French romantic drama but instead unleashes a tense, sinuous and deftly constructed tale of intrigue and deception. Nothing is a straightforward as it seems and if there is any smugness to be found, it is in how easily Mimouni has the audience wrapped around his finger with ease.
Serving as a character study of the flaws and fickleness of our capacity for love, lust and obsession, the depth of the story reveals itself through astutely timed flashbacks and alternate tellings of the central plot from differing perspectives. By dropping these vital morsels of information in piecemeal fashion our immersion into this sordid world of complex love triangles is complete.
Yes, I did use the plural “triangles” since Mimouni doesn’t do things by halves. At the start of the film we are introduced to suited and booted Max and his middle classed wife-to-be Muriel (Sandrine Kiberlain), whose brother is Max’s boss. Having aborted his trip to Japan, Max turns to his best friend shoe-shop owner Lucien (Jean-Philippe Écoffey) for help, since he knew Lisa from before.
Lucien is currently dating an actress named Alice who is also a nurse. They have a solid if interrupted relationship due to her work and acting loyalties, the pressure of which sees Alice as the more distant of the two. Through Lucien Max and Alice speak on the phone and know about each other’s current predicaments but never meet until the end of the film.
But this isn’t exactly true because – spoiler alert – Alice is in fact the second Lisa! Confused? Of course you are which is why I urge you to hunt this film down and watch it – just don’t expect answers right away because you won’t get them. We meet Lisa II before we meet Alice whilst Lisa I only appears in full in flashbacks about how she and Max first met. The two are best friends and naturally, there is an interesting story behind that too.
The flashbacks occur randomly, sometimes without warning, other times introduced through some nifty editing, but are easily recognisable due to the different hairstyles – Lisa has a stylish Bob while Max is a bohemian with long curly hair tied in a ponytail. For Max it is love at first sight but his distant adoration has Lisa thinking she has a stalker until they meet for real in Lucien’s shoe shop.
It sounds corny and probably is at first, but by the end it all makes sense in a gleefully ironic way in exploring fate as well as a self-referential nod to the intertwining narrative that drives the plot. Mimouni also goes meta by having Alice acting in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play also featuring unrequited affections between a group of connected people.
Mimouni’s plotting shows signs of being influenced by the same approach used for his architecture, starting with a solid foundation to lay the required components for the basic structure before adding the main features and additional flourishes for show. There is a clinical attention to detail in making sure each part of the overlapping stories fit and noting is left to contrivance or coincidence.
Even on a first watch everything passes scrutiny with little evidence that there is a loose brick ready to tumble the whole thing, the possible exception being the underdeveloped subplot of Lisa I’s current love life, which involves a possible murder plot. I imagine that on further repeat viewings vital clues will become more visible, the smallest detail of greater relevance – hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Being made before the advent of the mobile phone adds much to the drama in keeping certain characters apart and the inability to contact someone in times of extreme pressure and import. The lack of internet also means no social media updates to throw potential spanners into the works of a false story succeeding in its mission.
Despite spending little time together on screen, romance blossomed on set between Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, leading to marriage in 1999, it is Romane Bohringer who captivates the most however, a petite and melancholic little girl lost who just wants to love and be loved. Bohringer’s childlike appearance belies the intensity her character hides yet makes her emotional tragedy all the more poignant.
L’Appartement was, quite predictably, remade by Hollywood in 2004 as Wicker Park but apparently it stunk to high heaven. I’m not surprised as in just one viewing, I can see that Mimouni’s original is an untouchable mystery thriller of rare quality that should be left alone and enjoyed on its own merits. Sublime.