Masquerade | 2022 Cannes Film Festival Review
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: Bedos Takes the Grift Shift in French Riviera Crime Caper
For a film opening with W. Somerset Maugham’s line, “The French Riviera is a sunny place for shady people,” Masquerade falls quite short of its literary aspirations. The third feature from Nicolas Bedos featuring a ravishing cast of actors (once again formulating the juiciest bits for women who are more impressive than their male counterparts) has a lot going for it, especially if you’ve never seen droll crime comedies with double and triple crosses amongst a cadre of cads. The trouble is, most people have, thus casting a deathly derivative pallor over the film, which is also neither as smart or as witheringly written as it should be. Also, at a running time of nearing two and a half hours, it’s a lot of time spent on unlikeable elitists and those fleecing them, especially framed through a device of continual exposition which grows wearying.
When Margot (Marina Vacth) is shot down by jealous lover Simon (Francois Cluzet) while she’s languishing in a luxury hotel with her boyfriend Adrien (Pierre Niney), the testimony by a handful of witnesses at his ensuing trial provides the flashback framework for a complex con in which a dizzying array of vile personas are involved. Margot and Adrien are a pair of grifters who fall in love and plan a simultaneous con of their privileged lovers. Some years prior, Adrien was an aspiring dancer whose career ended after a car crash related injury. He becomes an escort for powerful women on the Riviera, including Giulia (Laura Morante), a restaurateur he abandons when a sour business venture bankrupts her.
A chance meeting with the narcissistic Martha (Isabelle Adjani) following a theatrical performance allows Simon to become her live-in lover, who she uses to distract herself from her failed relationship with her ex-husband, who left her for another man. When Margot throws an elaborate party at her home, Adrien meets Margot, attending as a date for Nice’s theater manager. A reckless whim of Margot’s, which she is prone to, kicks off a romance with Adrien. Together, they decide to use Giulia’s expertise of the local well-heeled prey so Margot can get pregnant by a wealthy lover and then marry him for access to his fortune. They settle on Simon, a real estate developer who had a hand in Jeanne losing her business. Simon falls for Margot, who pretends to be a British expat, while Adrien seduces Simon’s wife, Carole (Emmanuelle Devos) simultaneously tricking Margot into marrying him. Everything starts to become unhinged when Simon asks Margot to terminate her pregnancy, forcing the younger woman to resort to something more drastic and violent.
Bedos’ biggest problem is he’s freely borrowing nearly all his story elements from other noted sources, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. A maid’s testimony about Adjani describes her as a woman who “didn’t want to die. But she didn’t want to live” is a riff on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, who “wanted to die, but also wanted to live in Paris.” Not to mention a pit of vipers a la Agatha Christie, and instead of Death on the Nile, this could as easily have been titled Wretched on the Riviera, while Adjani feels transposed on the sidelines as Norma Desmond relocated to West Egg.
Bedos, who managed such a graceful and intoxicating role for Fanny Ardant in La Belle Époque (2019), for which she won a Cesar, does the opposite for Adjani, a constant caricature in the worst possible way and sans any redeemable dialogue. In demanding her boy toy purge his food she barks, “How do you think I kept my wasp waist? Wasps sting, you know.” While this could be salvageable as camp, it unfortunately isn’t very fun (as opposed to Francois Ozon’s recent direction of Adjani in this year’s Peter Von Kant).
A trio of other women tend to shine a bit brighter, even if two of them are mere narrative catalysts, such as Giulia played by Laura Morante and the always endearing Emmannuelle Devos. Francois Cluzet is, one again, playing a rather clueless fuddy duddy, while Pierre Niney remains the most inscrutable, a down and out dancer who seems to have resorted to using women for a livelihood more out of boredom than necessity. Tying everyone together nicely is Marina Vacth in the role Adjani would have once played (think One Deadly Summer, 1983) as an eternal manipulator who lies, cheats, steals and then lies some more behind a beautiful visage masking madness and mayhem. Unfortunately, she gets a whole lot of dumb dialogue to toss around as well, but her rage and ruin often seems justifiable. Sometimes it’s how cheesy the other characters refer to her. A friend at Simon’s trial confirms “She’s too beautiful” as an excuse for why men have a pattern for hurting her. Where Bedos makes his most conscious choice of homage (besides Adjani languishing in Maugham’s old mansion) is Vacth doing a pretty damn good Jane Birkin impression for her con of Cluzet.
Eventually this all gets overly complicated, never divorcing itself from the apparatus of various witness testimony, which plays like the worst part of something like Big Little Lies, where we are force-fed rather than shown exposition (a chorus is not always necessary). For some reason, Charles Berling gets folded into the mix as a non-entity with a bunch of hammy bon mots, though he should play more like George Sanders in All About Eve (1950). There’s a lot to admire about Masquerade, which certainly makes excellent use of the French Riviera, but its pacing, tone, and screenplay are lacking, dependent upon familiar twists of fate which require more succinct storytelling to keep the energy up. Witnessing these characters should feel like a sting but Masquerade feels more like a heavy wine hangover.
Reviewed on May 28th at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival – Out of Competition. 142 Mins