A May-December love story of subtle surfaces concealing a generous heart, Gerard Depardieu starrer "The Singer" hits all its emotional gracenotes with spot-on pitch. As an aging dance hall singer smitten by a wary young woman, the portly thesp is at his best in years, conjuring remarkable onscreen chemistry between himself and actress Cecile de France. Stuffed with French oom-pah classics, this looks to be a shoo-in with middle-aged Gauls -- Cannes public preem had viewers clapping along to the end titles -- and, with the right marketing, a connoisseur item in offshore venues.
Fiftysomething Alain Moreau (Depardieu) is a local celebrity in Clermont-Ferrand, where he sings jolly-cum-sentimental faves in a dance hall till 3:30 a.m. A pro who never misses his marks, despite an encroaching sense of being in the twilight of his career, Alain spots a beautiful young blonde, Marion (de France), in the audience one night and -- karamba! Marion is an intern at a realtor company run by Alain's friend, Bruno (Mathieu Amalric), and is unimpressed at first by the chanteur when he parlays a meeting the next day. But Alain's quiet persistence and frank, self-deprecating attitude finally tempt her to a night between the sheets -- but she makes a clandestine exit next morning before the old boy wakes.
Alain's passion is not discouraged by Michele (Christine Citti), his manager and ex-wife, so long as he keeps on with his career. But Marion, who has a young son by a previous liaison, is extremely cautious; despite a growing attraction to Alain, she doesn't want to fall too easily for his evidently practiced charm.
It's a central role -- and a story -- that could easily have been overplayed and turned into either a bitter portrait of an egotistical performer (a la "The Entertainer") or an excuse to send up the whole nostalgic, provincial milieu. But writer-director Xavier Giannoli, and his whole cast, play it straight and with an evident affection for their characters. The expected clichés never surface: Alain is neither a self-pitying alcoholic nor a grandstanding smoothie, and Marion neither an easy pushover nor a traumatized youngster. As he continues to meet her, on the excuse of viewing a new property to buy, Giannoli's script paints a beautifully nuanced portrait of two people reaching out for something neither fully comprehends.
Both Depardieu and 30-year-old, Belgian-born de France, usually seen in perkier roles, show new smarts here, and are ably supported by Amalric, as Marion's employer-cum-suitor, and Citti, as Alain's ex-cum-occasional bed partner. The emotional fluidity between all the characters is one of the pic's joys, and even by the end there's no sense that this is the end of the story.
Tech package is clean and smooth, with Alexandre Desplat's chordal score evoking a spiritual dimension between the chansons that adds further depth to the simple yarn. Running time, like the emotions on display, never feels stretched.
Camera (color), Yorick Le Saux; editor, Martine Giordano; music, Alexandre Desplat; song arranger, Jean-Yves d'Angelo; art director, Francois-Renaud Labarthe; costume designer, Nathalie Benros; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Francois Musy, Gabriel Hafner; associate producer, Jean Coulon; casting, Antoinette Boulat. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 26, 2006. Running time: 112 MIN.