Danielle Darrieux, who is celebrating her 75th year in showbiz -- and is so wry and spry in her delivery, she could probably go on for another 75 -- is just one excellent reason to see "Oh La La!", a modest but perfectly dosed quirky comedy. Intrepid oddball Augustin Dos Santos (scripter-helmer Anne Fontaine's brother Jean-Chretien Sibertin-Blanc), returns for a third adventure, this time centered on romantic folly, epistolary wisdom from the 18th century and the strange alchemy by which a play takes shape. Reception at lone Cannes showing was radiant; fest auds elsewhere should come out smiling and humming.
Retirement home resident Odette St. Gilles (Darrieux) meets Augustin when she comes backstage to congratulate him on the one man show he's just put on for oldsters. Long ago she was the toast of Paris as an operetta entertainer. Her vision is failing but she's feisty, direct and utterly on the ball. Odette reads a worn copy of the classic correspondence between Madame du Deffand and Julie de Lespinasse the way religious adepts read their Bibles, finding daily comfort in the two women's timeless insights into life, love, suffering and transcendence, set in the era of glittering salons over 200 years ago.
Broke but tirelessly entrepreneurial Augustin promises the Paris branch of a Swedish manufacturing firm that he'll arrange a typically French performance for an upcoming visit of top brass. None of his own routines fit the bill, but Augustin thinks Odette and her favorite text might. After an amusing forced encounter in the swimming pool of the Paris Ritz, Augustin finds himself directing rehearsals with Odette and distinctive TV thesp Bettina Fleischer (Arielle Dombasle) as the erstwhile pen pals, and miscast lug Franck (Christophe Vandevelde) as a longed-for love interest. Dreamy young senior citizens center worker Raphael (promising screen newcomer Andy Gillet) is also drafted.
Situational humor encompasses several generations with alacrity, en route to a memorable finish. Scene in which Odette hesitantly sings along to Darrieux's vintage recording of "Fascination" while Caroline Champetier's camera hones in and hovers on her face is magically bittersweet. Dombasle's ethereal flakiness is exploited in the best sense of the term as pic tackles serendipity, art, love and the march of time. Score is a delight and cameos by influential figures from Gallic arts and politics, including former Minister of Culture Jack Lang, are a nice touch.
Fontaine has earned praise, fest slots and awards for her most serious efforts ("Dry Cleaning," "How I Killed My Father," "In His Hands). but "Augustin," "Augustin, King of Kung-Fu" and this new installment are funny and haunting in equal measure, suggesting her greatest gift may be for comedy with pleasingly melancholy undertones.
Camera (color), Caroline Champetier; editor, Isabelle Dedieu; production designer, Pascale Consigny; costume designer, Tess Hammami; sound (Dolby), Jean-Claude Laureux, Daniel Sobrino. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (non-competing), May 24, 2006. Running time: 87 MIN.