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Grounded

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Back in 1974 Claude Lelouch made an exquisite romantic comedy titled And Now My Love that is mysteriously less well known than his earlier A Man and a Woman. In the 1970s and '80s I saw And Now My Love with theater audiences a half dozen times, and its ending was greeted with applause on every occasion. The premise is that true lovers are destined for each other, that the divine hand of history works through circumstance to bring perfect mates together.

Writer/director Daniele Thompson works from a comparable instinct in Jet Lag, now playing at Canal Place. The picture's sustained opening image communicates its core theme: We linger long over something at first indistinguishable, a piece of fabric that we slowly discover is a blindfold covering the bloodshot eyes of a airline passenger. Love is blind in more ways than one; we are slow to see that which we should love but long to understand that our lover's imperfections are of insignificant consequence.

Written with Christopher Thompson, Jet Lag is the story of two travelers who get stranded by an assortment of problems at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. Rose (Juliette Binoche) is a beautician who has decided to leave her abusive husband (Sergi Lopez). She's on her way to Acapulco where's she's lined up a job at a resort doing makeup and giving massages. But if she doesn't get out of town in a hurry, she might just relent and go back to the lout. Felix (Jean Reno) is a talented French chef now living in New York. He used to run an award-winning restaurant, but now he manages a gourmet frozen-food company. He's flown across the Atlantic on a typical red-eye on his way to a funeral in Munich where he hopes to reunite with an estranged lover. But he gets grounded in Paris because of bad weather and can't get out thereafter because every union in France is out on strike.

Rose and Felix meet by accident; she borrows his cell phone, and a series of typical movie contrivances keep them in contact at various spots around the terminal until American Airlines arranges a hotel room for Felix and he offers Rose a place more comfortable than a departure lounge to rest. The nice twist of this invitation is that it is genuinely motivated by kindness. Felix is far too wiped out to nurse hopes of seducing Rose.

The middle part of the picture strays a little too close to Hollywood formula. As in any romantic comedy we know that the stars are meant for each other. But American films routinely follow the "I hate you/I hate you/I love you" plot, and we get a little of that here. Felix has become rich, but he's been unlucky in love, and because Rose is running away from her husband, he suspects she is just another heartless bitch. Rose, meanwhile, has known little but abuse from men, and she suspects Felix is little better than the rest. So they are nasty to each other before they are nice.

But this is a brief and minor failing. Allergic and fidgety, Felix effectively reminds us of Felix Unger from The Odd Couple while still retaining Reno's rugged sex appeal. And Binoche, usually such a serious actress, gets a chance to play ditzy and unformed. Like Catherine Deneuve, Binoche has great beauty but also like Deneuve a Gallic reserve that some mistake for aloof iciness. Though this will certainly remain one of Binoche's least significant performances, it nonetheless has the benefit of displaying her humanity. Worried about a sweaty day of hauling her luggage from one place to another, Rose surreptitiously sniffs her armpits when Felix is out of the room. She's a silly delight while trying to freshen herself by spraying perfume on her hands and then fanning herself.

Ultimately Jet Lag is about masks. Felix must remove his literal and figurative blindfold to see the woman who might warm his gelid life. And he must see through her mask, that of the powder and blush and mascara behind which she hides. Director Thompson loves Binoche's face as any sensible filmmaker or moviegoer would. And Thompson plays a terrific trick on us. Rose seems frumpy and overdone at first with her hair lacquered and pinned up. But when the camera closes in on her face alone, we see again how astonishingly beautiful Binoche is. And then the script provides a reason that she must scrub away the layers of makeup. The woman who emerges from the shower with her hair down around her shoulders shows the crinkly line of age here and there, but she is much more real, much more desirable. While her made up face is as perfect as a photograph of a rose, her naked face is the flower itself.

Flights of fancy: Felix (Jean Reno) and Rose (Juliette - Binoche) find first-class love in Jet Lag.
  • Flights of fancy: Felix (Jean Reno) and Rose (Juliette Binoche) find first-class love in Jet Lag.

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