MADAME. Starring: Toni Colette, Harvey Keitel, Rossi de Palma, Michael Smiley, and Tom Hughes. Directed by Amanda Sthers. Rated M (Sexual references, coarse language and nudity). 91 min.
This comedy-drama film from France is about a wealthy American couple who arrange for their maid to pretend to be someone else at a dinner party. The subterfuge creates consequences for the couple, as well as several others sitting around the dinner table, especially the maid.
Bob (Harvey Keitel) and Anne (Toni Colette) move into luxury accomodation in Paris, hoping to enliven their marriage by having a better time together than they seem to have managed in the past. Anne (Madame) is Bob’s second wife; she is an ex-golf instructor; and she doesn't know that her husband is experiencing money problems.
In Paris, the couple plan an extravagant dinner for their well-connected, international friends. Anne starts arranging dinner for her guests, when her gay novelist son, Steven (Tom Hughes), from her first marriage, appears suddenly at the door. His arrival makes 12 persons sitting around the dinner table an ominous 13. Because of superstition, Anne adds another guest to make the number of guests a comfortable 14. At the last minute, she asks her loyal head-maid, Maria (Rossi de Palma) to help her out. Under Anne’s instruction, Maria reluctantly changes her maid’s uniform, dresses up for the occasion, and becomes her employer’s trusted friend.
Maria is introduced to guests at the dinner as a wealthy Spanish woman of noble heritage. With fine wine, good food, and too much conversation, Maria attracts the attention of another guest, David (Michael Smiley), who is a wealthy British art broker. David is drawn to Maria, and she to him, and Maria decides to continue her masquerade after the dinner is over.
Romance blooms between Maria and David, and Anne pursues the couple around Paris, worried about what is happening. Maria’s happiness contrasts with Anne’s feelings of insecurity about her marriage, and the situation undermines Anne’s personal beliefs about social class. She sets out to destroy the relationship, while conducting an extra-marital affair on the side.
The movie has a very international look. It has a French Director. The American couple is acted by an Australian actress and an American actor, and both perform alongside a vibrant Spanish actress, whose role has her falling in love with a British expert of high culture. Given its plot line, if the comedy had been kept effervescently French, it might have worked, but it doesn't. There are moments of light-heartedness, such as a tipsy Maria telling ribald jokes, but the film chiefly looks for humour in stereotypes, and it depicts social divisions insensitively.
The tour-de-force in this mix is Rossi de Palma as Maria, who does her best to highlight conflicts of class and culture among Bob and Anne’s international friends, and, for the most part, she succeeds. De Palma acts someone, who doesn't fit easily into the usual categories of class. She is accepted by those who seem to have everything, when the viewer knows she does not, and her endearing oddness attracts people in ways that dramatically challenge viewers’ expectations about social divisions in society.
David is genuinely besotted with Maria's unaffected ways, and De Palma brings a delightful spontaneity to her role. Tony Colette tries to capture the envy of a woman who has experienced Maria’s happiness sometime in her past, but she exaggerates her character’s meanness. Colette’s talents are tied to a film that tends to view people and social divisions negatively, rather than positively - such as one of the dinner guests’ comment to Steven, “you should carry a purse”.
The film has some enjoyable comic moments. It is packaged well, has good photography and costume design, but its dramatic heart lies somewhere deep inside the mix. It is hard for viewers to locate the film’s positive core, though the film moves to a happy ending of sorts.
Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released August 17th., 2017