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That Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

If you’re a reader of a certain age, you likely remember the television series Moonlighting.* The show concerned a private detective agency, as so, so many shows did back in the good old 1980s. For the most part, the episodes were a mystery-of-the-week type of thing, and if it were only that kind of a show, it would be appropriately forgotten. But Moonlighting was different. 

Moonlighting kicked its way through the fourth wall, parodied all manner of genres, and had an endlessly clever sense of humor. All of that is good. People watched and kept watching because of the chemistry between Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd. She played a polished ex-model, while he played a wise-assy gumshoe. It’s no exaggeration to say that Shepherd and Willis’ chemistry was atomic. In fact, the only thing stronger than their chemistry was their seething hatred of each other. 

Chemistry is one of the great mysteries, particularly when it comes to on-screen couples. Why does good chemistry work? I have no idea. When it works, though, you’ve got something like Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise. When it doesn’t, then you’re pummeled with something like Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen in Knocked Up.** We’re treated to excellent chemistry in Whenever I’m Alone with You, a French rom-com made with no small degree of creativity.

The very first thing that happens is Guillaume (Guillaume Campanacci) addresses the audience. He says, “If you want to watch a romantic comedy, I’m sorry, or if you want to be spoon-fed the plot because otherwise you wouldn’t understand the story, I’m sorry, or if you’re dumb, I’m sorry, or finally, if you’re American, then I’m really sorry.” Coups de feu tirés, indeed.

We learn, in the most French way possible, that Guillaume is deeply depressed. He tries to kill himself, and his parents find his limp body, a cigarette still smoldering in his lips. The depression stems from a horrible breakup, the kind that makes reconnecting with family and friends nearly impossible. Odds are Guillaume will smoke, drink, and maybe take another shot at suicide later. 

We also learn that Vedrana (Vesper Egon) is not in the greatest place, either. She’s with a guy, whom we never see & only “hear” through subtitles, who’s kind of a drip. While she cares about books, good conversation, and the absurd, he cares about his dull as toast career. The two of them fit together the same way that plutonium and waffles fit together.

Then, at an impossibly stylish party, Guillaume and Vedrana lock eyes. There’s a kind of gravitational pull that binds them, and if it’s not love at first sight, it’ll do until love arrives. Since they live in the South of France, they embark on a romance that’s especially picturesque. They stroll the beaches, embark on a hunt for a television, and discover a love that only ever makes sense for the two of them.

Ordinarily, I’m no fan of surrealism in movies. It too often feels like the director is either trying to distract from an undercooked script, or is entirely disinterested in telling a story. “Ordinarily” being the operative word, because I was utterly charmed by Whenever I’m Alone with You. Directed by Vesper Egon and Guillaume Campanacci, the film has a loose and improvisational style. Campanacci and Egon utilize the gorgeous landscape, in-camera effects, and glances and smiles from the co-leads in order to create a joyful and chaotic romance. All those choices plunge us into a whirlwind, and if you’ve ever been in the midst of a wild first love, that whirlwind feels like this one.

When they were crafting the screenplay, Egon and Campanacci decided against telling a linear story. That feels like a smart move, and they focused more on who these characters are, what they’re lacking, and what they desire. I liked getting into the heads of Guillaume and Vedrana. It shows us how they look at the world, other people, and themselves. Most importantly, we see how they look at each other and why their attraction first sparks, then explodes. A non-linear script was also a smart move, because when we enter into a new relationship, we’re never only looking forward. We consider the past, swoon over the present, and alternately plan for and avoid the future. It’s a sophisticated storytelling choice that allows us to feel what these two are feeling.

The majority of romcoms feature pretty people who fall for each other, break up due to a contrived misunderstanding that could be resolved with a thirty second conversation, then get back together. The attractiveness of the actors does the heavy lifting, as opposed to performances that convince us of their attraction to each other. I suppose it’s possible that Egon and Campanacci might hate each other’s guts, or that they’re currently in a relationship, or that they’re dedicated professionals. The reality doesn’t matter to me. Their performance, and I can’t help thinking of it as a joint effort, is what feels real. Watch how they look at each other, how they smile a little more around each other. I believed that these two were over the moon nuts for each other.

Here in the United States, romance is in kind of a weird place. Studies show that larger numbers of young men are single, that technology has transformed dating and sex, and that more people date people they were previously friends with. Nostalgia for the good old days of dating is a waste of time, since the only constant in life is change. Well…maybe not the only constant. Whenever I’m Alone with You reminds us that, even in the digital age, there’s no substitute for chemistry.

 

*If you’re not a decrepit old fossil like me, you can stream Moonlighting on Hulu. I have no idea if it still holds up, and I’d rather not find out. The fond memories I have for it will do just fine.

**The tragedy of that film is that it’s well made and both of the leads are appealing. Just not so much with each other.



Tim Brennan Movie Critic

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.

 

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