Most women can remember a passionate friendship from girlhood; when it ended, the disappointment approached the bitterness of the lovelorn. Girls Can’t Swim, a sensitive and astute first feature by Anne-Sophie Birot, explores the relationship between two 15-year-olds who spend each summer together in Brittany. Gwen (Isild Le Besco), the daughter of a local fisherman, is a live wire, all thick lips, flying hair, and raging hormones. While awaiting the arrival of Lise (Karen Alyx), she fools around with her steady boyfriend and passing vacationers. Meanwhile, a family tragedy keeps Lise stuck in her bourgeois home; when the girls are reunited, sexual tensions and emotional competition strain their bond.
Le Besco has spent much of her brief but illustrious career to date (from the short La Puce to the upcoming Sade) acting out the loss of virginity. Here her pulchritudinous defiance is palpable. Birot’s careful character study makes the more intellectual Lise also more inclined to betrayal. Her film falters when it takes a final, violent turn into melodrama. Until then, though, she captures the deep currents of love and rivalry that make female teen friendships so important and so volatile.
Flirtation saves the day in Triumph of Love, Clare Peploe’s adaptation of the comedy by Marivaux, the 18th-century French dramatist whose name became a verb: marivauder, meaning to spout airy trifles about affairs of the heart while fanning one’s powdered wig in a rococo salon. Mira Sorvino stars as Princess Leonide, who is smitten from afar by the young Agis (Jay Rodan). Years ago, her uncle slew his parents and usurped his throne, which she inherited. Agis has been taught by his guardians, the philosopher Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his sister Leontine (Fiona Shaw), to revile young women and, more particularly, to hate her. The princess and her faithful servant don men’s clothes to penetrate their secluded domain, where she sets out to woo him. But Cupid soon goes into overdrive.
It’s a giddy farce worthy of Lucy and Ethel, and Peploe plays up the buffoonery. She softens the blow to Leontine (who falls hard for the “boy”) by giving the lady a career as a scientist. Yet Sorvino makes the princess seem smug and cartoonish, and the film only really comes alive when poor Hermocrates and Leontine pathetically compare notes about their budding amours. Perhaps the problem lies with Marivaux’s paean to love, which reveals that tender emotion to be cruel and imperious.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding, based upon the one-woman show by Nia Vardalos (who also stars), is a tale of intermarriage and ethnic kvetching familiar from 1950s television dramas like Abie’s Irish Rose. Frumpy, 30-year-old Toula (Vardalos) works in her parents’ Greek restaurant and wonders when her life will begin. A computer course at a local college leads to a more glamorous job in her Aunt Voula’s travel agency, where she meets the handsome Ian (John Corbett). He’s from a different gene pool, where the people are tall and polite, attend country clubs, and repress their emotions. It’s love at first sight, though her kin (including 27 first cousins) won’t hear of it.
Vardalos’s parodies of Greek family values are loving and witheringly hilarious: from the aunt who thinks vegetarians eat lamb and the grandmother who curses everyone as “Turks” to the endless folk dancing and ouzo. (Michael Constantine, as Toula’s father, is particularly touching.) But her romance with Ian is sugary fare, and it’s hard to see their marriage as a victory for feminist ideals of self-realization.