La Moustache

on May 24, 2006 by Sheri Linden
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At the beginning of this elegant suspense yarn, a Parisian architect teases his wife with the idea of shaving off the mustache he's had most of his adult life. She claims she wouldn't recognize him without it, but when he does indeed take the razor to his upper lip, her reaction turns out to be quite different and far more disturbing. Adapting his 1986 book, well-known French novelist and screenwriter Emmanuel Carrère ("Class Trip") has fashioned an absorbing and provocative thriller in "La Moustache," his first narrative feature as director. Those who prefer their mysteries solved likely will find the film's not-quite-tidy ending a disappointment, but audiences open to a tale that travels non-literal paths will spark to a smartly scripted, well-acted exploration of identity and the limits of communication.

Marc (Vincent Lindon) gamely waits, in vain, for Agnès (Emmanuelle Devos) to notice his newly hairless lip. She betrays not the slightest reaction, and when pressed on the matter insists he never had a mustache. Friends and colleagues are similarly oblivious to the change in Marc's appearance, and he suspects Agnès has masterminded an elaborate practical joke. But his suspicions take on a darker tinge as days go by. Is Agnès gaslighting him, or is Marc in the throes of a midlife breakdown? Intuiting that he's experiencing something beyond logic -- or doubting his own eyes -- Marc doesn't force Agnès to look at an album full of snapshots in which he's smiling and mustachioed. Overhearing her plans to hospitalize him, he flees the country, Philip Glass's well-chosen "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra" the frenzied accompaniment to his rain-soaked cab ride to the airport.

The concise film enters unexpected territory, physically and psychologically, in its final, Hong Kong-set section. Marc immerses himself in calming views of the harbor, the crowds' orderly bustle and, especially, the lulling back-and-forth of the ferry. He's a man in between, unmoored, but in this foreign place his otherness is clear, definable and unchallenged. With one last surprise before closing credits, Carrère poses questions about the untranslatable places in our emotional lives and how the existential fact of separateness can threaten agreed-upon roles -- especially in marriage. "La Moustache" uses sly wit and foreboding to deconstruct notions of self in its portrait of a close shave with insanity. Starring Vincent Lindon, Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric and Hippolyte Girardot. Directed by Emmanuel Carrère. Written by Jérôme Beaujour and Emmanuel Carrère. Produced by Anne-Dominique Toussaint. A Cinema Guild release. Psychological thriller. French-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 85 min

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