Tonie Marshall’s Venus Beauty Institute is a showcase for Nathalie Baye, who rode to stardom on a bicycle in Godard’s 1979 Every Man for Himself. Since then she has appeared in some 35 films, few worthy of her talent. Earlier this year, the deadly dull An Affair of Love blatantly exploited the desire of her audience to see how, at age 52, she was holding up as French cinema’s most unselfconscious sex symbol.
The winner of four César awards, Venus Beauty Institute has a wittier, more finely tuned appreciation of Baye’s appeal. First seen behind the plate glass windows of Venus Beauté, a small Paris day spa, she looks somewhat sad and wan, her hair hanging limply about the collar of her peach uniform. Baye plays Angèle, a beautician who’s at least 20 years older than her coworkers. Her employer, Madame Nadine (Bulle Ogier), makes a comfortable living by convincing women that facials and dye jobs are a duty rather than an indulgence. She’s perplexed that Angèle doesn’t want to follow in her footsteps by opening a salon of her own. But Angèle is leery of growing up and settling down in both her professional and private life.
Once wounded in a love affair—the extravagant details of which are kept secret for most of the film—Angèle now limits herself to sexual flings that give her a sense of control, but almost inevitably result in humiliation. Venus Beauty Institute opens with a deftly written scene: Angèle and the pudgy suburbanite with whom she’s spent the weekend are in a railroad station café. She puts herself in a vulnerable position by asking to see him again; he uses the opening to brush her off with utmost cruelty. As he piles on the insults about her “flat ass” and her “vulgar aggression,” her hurt turns to anger. “This is a democracy, I have equal rights!” she yells as she follows him to his train. “You dump me, I stalk you.”
This encounter has been observed by Antoine (Samuel Le Bihan), an attractive, bearish-looking man who’s instantly smitten with Angèle—and wants to rescue her from this bully. (Marshall frames the scene as a triangle with Antoine watching Angèle over the other man’s shoulder, to emphasize the oedipal underpinnings of his feelings.) Antoine fixates on Angèle as the love of his life and breaks up with his gorgeous 20-year-old fiancée. His protective impulse mirrors what the audience feels for Angèle and for Baye. Decorated in sherbet colors that change from pink to blue with the flick of a light switch, the salon is like a miniature movie set. We want our heroine to escape its confines even though we have no idea where she can go next.
Thanks to some brilliant casting, Venus Beauty Institute provokes ideas about women, movies, sexuality, and age that extend beyond its frothy fiction. At least during the first hour, the film thrives on the hilarious girl talk and cameo appearances by such luminaries as Claire Denis, Edith Scob, and especially Robert Hossein as a scarred pilot, who comes to Venus Beauté to preserve the skin that was grafted from his wife’s thighs onto his face. Much to Angèle’s dismay, the pilot, now widowed, becomes enamored of Marie, the youngest beautician (Audrey Tautou). Angèle enlists Antoine’s help in rescuing Marie from the clutches of this much older man. Spying on the lovers, who despite their age difference are well matched, Angèle is sufficiently turned on to forget, for a brief moment, her misgivings about Antoine. Once they begin groping each other, the movie loses both subtlety and momentum, and its bittersweet tone quickly shades into melodrama. Despite the pressure of the box office, movie sex is often better kept in the head.
Josh Aronson’s thoroughly engrossing documentary Sound and Fury is as much about children’s rights as it is about the impact of cochlear-implant technology on a family in which deafness runs through three generations. Peter Artinian, his wife, Nita, and their three children are all deaf. When their five-year-old, Heather, asks to have a cochlear implant, they feel betrayed by her desire to become part of the hearing world. But they try to keep an open mind while investigating this new technology, which uses tiny computers to enhance hearing. The earlier the procedure is performed, the more effective it is in enabling speech acquisition. The conflict between Heather’s parents and the hearing members of the Artinian family becomes more heated when Peter’s hearing brother and sister-in-law, Chris and Mari, decide to give their 18-month-old deaf son the implant despite the protests of Mari’s deaf parents.
Peter and Nita believe that cochlear implants are a threat to the survival of the culture in which their identity is based. Many of the deaf people in the film share their views. “I was happy when my children were born deaf,” says Peter. “Silence is peaceful. Signing is more expressive than speech.” To their hearing relatives, however, it seems as if Peter and Nita are acting against their daughter’s best interests, not to mention her desires, to affirm their own identity. And Sound and Fury, which gives both sides of the Artinian family a forum to debate their views, seems weighted in favor of the implants. Aronson translates sign language into voice-over that interprets not only what deaf people say but the emotional charge behind their words—which, paradoxically, reinforces the barrier between the hearing members of the audience and the deaf people in the film. (The version showing at Film Forum also has subtitles.) Heather, who never seems totally convinced by her parents’ arguments and warnings against “the cochlear,” emerges as a tragic figure whose desire to hear, and thus to move between the worlds of the hearing and the deaf, is suppressed by her parents’ need to mold her in their own image.
Shane Meadows’s A Room for Romeo Brass, a slight, semiautobiographical saga of adolescent boy friendship, is enhanced by a fabulous soundtrack that runs the gamut from the Specials to J.J. Cale, with Hank Williams, Beck, Belle and Sebastian, and lots of others in between. Like Meadows’s Small Time and TwentyFourSeven, the film draws on Meadows and screenwriter Paul Fraser’s memories of growing up poor in the English Midlands.
Romeo Brass (Andrew Shim) and Gavin “Knocks” Woolley (Ben Marshall) are inseparable until Romeo falls under the influence of the much older Morell (Paddy Considine), a serious sicko who’s using Romeo to get into his sister’s pants. A chubby black 12-year-old with an enormous appetite for junk food, Romeo is flattered by Morell’s attention. Knocks, a fragile white boy with a lively intellect and a damaged spine, is terrified by Morell’s violence and angry with Romeo for abandoning him when he needs him most. After Knocks has back surgery, Romeo doesn’t even come to visit. A Room for Romeo Brass is so low-key it could be mistaken for a throwaway. But Meadows’s understanding of childhood fears and fantasies and the yearning, heartfelt performances he draws from his two young actors should not be underestimated.