Published November 1, 2000
Well, it’s a good subject and a great star. The Venus Beauty Institute is a French film written and directed by Tonie Marshall which explores the female fear of commitment. Everybody knows about the male fear of same, but the female version is much more interesting. Nor to her film’s credit does Ms Marshall’s feminist inclination simply refuse to countenance what to conservatives must seem the most obvious explanation for women’s fear of love, namely the sexual revolution and the consequent destruction of the institution of marriage. Ideology is mercifully absent. Moreover, the movie stars the luminous Nathalie Baye, whose performance as the tough but still-vulnerable Parisian beautician, Angèle, would be a shoo-in for an Oscar if there were any justice in the world.
One fault is that the film is a little over-emphatic about what it is that has made Angèle so hard-bitten. When she was eight, we learn, her father shot and killed her mother, whom he supposed to have been unfaithful to him. Then he shot himself when he found out she wasn’t. You can understand how she might be a little leery about forming close attachments with men, even though there are less melodramatic reasons why that could be true. Nevertheless, we know that she has been close to a man called Jacques (Jacques Bonnaffé)–and that there seems to have been, rather incredibly, some gunplay involved in that relationship too — which resulted in Jacques’s facial disfigurement. Angèle now tells a girlfriend that she cannot love because she did love someone and she hurt him
“He hurt you too,” says the girlfriend.
“On me it doesn’t show,” she replies.
It is an answer that brings up the multiple ironies involved in the fact that she spends her days trying to make women look attractive to men. Much of the film is taken up with showing us the half-sad, half-funny parade of hopeful women through the eponymous Venus Beauty Institute in search of the elusive attractiveness that will enable them to find or keep a man. It can hardly be surprising that any woman in this situation, let alone one with Angèle’s history, would take a rather jaundiced view of the relations between the sexes. When, near the end, Jacques tells her that he has a new girlfriend, she asks what she looks like. “She doesn’t care about looks,” replies Jacques, perhaps thinking about his own disfigurement.
“But,” replies Angèle uncomprehendingly, “it’s all we have to sell.”
Like the hip Hollywood version of the bachelor gal in such awful films as Whipped or Gossip, or the less awful (because it doesn’t take itself seriously) Charlie’s Angels, Angèle adopts a predatory, masculine approach to sex, picking up guys for casual flings and casting them aside when she tires of them. Unlike her Hollywood counterparts, however, she does not enjoy being promiscuous as much as she pretends to do. We can see this right at the beginning when we observe her latest “fling” — most likely not for the first time in her experience of casual lovers — tiring of her before she can tire of him. Like the heroine of the Spanish Solas, Angèle shows us the desolation that lies just beneath the surface of so much self-consciously pursued pleasure– something that would scarcely be allowed in the Hollywood version. But then the American film industry’s approach to female sexuality is so freighted with ideology that it must be disregarded altogether.
Angèle’s angry break-up with this man at a railway station is observed by a much younger and better-looking man (Samuel Le Bihan) who, though he is himself engaged, is instantly smitten with her. “I saw you at the station,” he tells her, eventually accosting her in the street. “You moved me. I can’t stop thinking about you…My name is Antoine, and I love you.” Naturally, Angèle is suspicious, but it soon becomes clear that the real danger, from her point of view, is not that Antoine is insincere but rather that, as she very much fears, he really means it. She keeps trying to push him away, insisting that “love is just another form of slavery” and finally confiding in the face of his persistence that “love makes me sick and mean,” and so she has vowed never to have anything to do with it again.
And it does make her sick, quite literally. Mean too. But Antoine refuses to be discouraged no matter what she does to drive him away. It is a charming love story which ends with a bold–not to say foolhardy–reprise of the love-and-firearms motif which helps to obscure the lack of any real transition from Angèle the love-shy to Angèle the (presumably) loving. But then, maybe that’s the very mystery of the thing. Ultimately, there can be no rationale for anything so irrational as falling in love. Everyone who does it experiences the same bewildering lack of transition from non-love to love as Angèle and Antoine do — and some equivalent of the same shower of sparks from the bullet-riddled neon sign of the Venus Beauty Institute.