Combien tu m’aimes?

Combien tu m'aimes?Synopsis: In this gleeful, bawdy sex comedy, Francois [Bernard Campan], a downtrodden office worker tells the gorgeous prostitute Daniela [the gorgeous Monica Bellucci] that he’s won the lottery and invites her to come home with him to spend his money. The ensuing cat-and-mouse negotiations are played out with verve and wit by both, and by a supporting cast of vicariously engaged friends and neighbors including Gerard Depardieu as Daniela’s bedraggled mobster boyfriend Charly.

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Combien tu m’aimes? 8.0

eyelights: the slightly surreal aspect of the film. the excellent cast. the music. Monica Bellucci.
eyesores: the oft-inscrutable tone.

‘Combien tu m’aimes’ is the story of François, a man who walks into a brothel and convinces a prostitute to come live with him – the promise of a small fortune being the selling point. Confiding in Daniela that he has just won the lottery, he tells her that he wants to spend his new-found wealth on her until he runs out.

After demanding a down payment of sorts, she gets into a cab with him and proceeds to packing her bags and moving in with him. However, he hadn’t accounted for one thing: she likes -and misses- the nightlife. She is also a kept woman: and her lover, Charly, is none other than a cruel mob boss.

And he wants her back.

Until ‘Combien tu m’aimes?’, I had only seen three films by auteur Bertrand Blier: ‘Merci la vie’, which I didn’t like, ‘Trop belle pour toi’, which I enjoyed but was underwhelmed by (phenomenal word of mouth had raised my expectations too high), and ‘Buffet froid‘, which I absolutely relish. I can’t claim to be a fan, but he certainly intrigues me.

So when I saw his name, along with Monica Bellucci’s and Gérard Depardieu, on the DVD, I just had to pick it up and give it a chance; it’s a mélange that’s simply impossible to ignore.

It’s a good thing that I did, because I would otherwise have missed out on a delightfully surrealist comedy reminiscent of some of Luis Buñuel’s work or even of the absurdist elements of David Lynch’s oeuvre. That is not to say that they are necessarily comparable, but Blier’s film certainly has similar roots, roots that I adore.

‘Combien tu m’aimes?’ isn’t surrealist from a visual standpoint more so than it is due to its characters’ unusual behaviours and exchanges; at every possible turn, Blier gives his actors lines that people wouldn’t say in every day dialogues, or makes them do things that are not typical of human interaction.

A perfect example is the interaction and subsequent transaction that takes place between François and Daniela. What are the odds that a man who just won 4.5 million would go confide in a prostitute first and foremost, then offer her money to live with him, and that she would actually accept without any other consideration?

It’s not outside the realm of the possible, but it’s so unlikely that it makes it feel unrealistic and, therefore, mildly comic. The fact that the people speak in unusual ways adds to this effect, such as Daniela’s matter-of-fact statements that she exists for men to love her, a seemingly sober self-awareness that borders on the pathological.

The way Daniela says this is similar to the way a zoologist would discuss the natural abilities of wildlife. Except that she is self-referencing, which is such an unusual thing to do in this case – she is, after all, talking about a subjective attribute as though it were entirely objective, as though beauty and seduction were in the realm of science.

This amused me a great deal because, not only does she believe it to her core, as though this were her fate and accepted it, but it’s stated as fact by many of the male characters in the film. It was weird to hear this said not as boast or envy but as a simple fact, as a deep understand of a role in life that everyone accepts. Very strange.

It also made me wonder what kind of person would take this type of role. Was Bellucci doing this out of vanity, or to poke fun at her own image?

On the one hand it totally serves her image to be seen as this woman that every man desires and loses their composure over. On the other hand, it could be a sign of reigned-in ego, in that perhaps she doesn’t take being acclaimed as one of the world’s most beautiful women so seriously. I’ll never know, but this question intrigued me greatly.

Further confusing matters is the how Blier blurred things by showing her in various stages of undress, causing a character to die of a heart attack, but conversely making her regurgitate uncontrollably in one scene, thereby demolishing the allure that she purportedly has – and even taking it to comedic levels. Clearly, whether Bellucci got the joke or not, Blier was having fun at her image’s expense.

Blier also had fun with his other characters, but Bellucci is indubitably the central figure in this picture. Even when Daniela is not on screen, her absence speaks loudly – we are unable to forget her. She is the reason why our characters act the way that they do, and everyone is focused on her whether directly or indirectly.

It was fascinating to me how effortlessly Belluci commanded the screen, even if she isn’t the strongest actor in the picture. I’ve often found her utterly magnetic (‘Malena’ is the perfect example of her pull), but I can’t help but wonder if it’s a natural charm that she has, or if it’s artificially-induced by the filmmakers devoting their cameras and crews to her.

Then in her early 40s, lines crept under her eyes then, and her glow wasn’t as lustrous. And yet she remained alluring. Is this because she breaks the tradition of North American “beauty”? Here, one would rarely see a woman built such strong a frame as Bellucci is – and post-pregnancy, no less. She’s only 5’7″ and yet she’s imposing, unlike her American sistren.

Whatever she’s got, I just can’t figure it out. She’s a mystery to me.

The rest of the cast is quite good as well (Bernard Campan is quite excellent as François, a bland nobody), but the film belongs to Belluci and Blier. Between her allure and the picture’s focus on her, and his own artistic choices (such as the peculiar bursts of opera music, or the intermingling of drama and comedy), ‘Combien tu m’aimes?’ leaves little room for anyone else.

While it’s no masterpiece, I relished the offbeat behaviours; to me it was as though Blier found the perfect mixture of reality and fantasy. People didn’t act like normal people would, didn’t say the things that normal people would; everything was slightly off. In some ways it’s very much like ‘Buffet Froid’ – but more tempered.

Some say that Bertrand Blier was in the middle of a slump when he made this film and only got back to full form of late. Well, if ‘Combien tu m’aimes?’ is the writer-director’s output whilst in the dumps, then I can only imagine what the rest of his oeuvre is like when he’s at his best. Trust me, I plan to find out.

Story: 7.5
Acting: 8.0
Production: 7.5

Sexiness: 6.0
Nudity: 4.0
Explicitness: 3.0

Date of viewing: September 8, 2013

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