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Sugar and Spice: The jolly Bruno (Dany Boon, left) and a prickly François (Daniel Auteuil) conduct lessons on the art of likeability in 'My Best Friend.'

Friends in Need

A self-centered antique dealer and a Monsieur Know-It-All pal around in 'My Best Friend'

By Richard von Busack

We all need escapes from escapism. Seeing Patrice Leconte's filmic discourses—his arguments and counterarguments on the nature of love and the art of living—one comes out with brain stimulated instead of benumbed.

We don't get anything like the bulk of Leconte's work in America; his biggest commercial success would seem to be Les Bronzes, a trilogy of comedies about the badly behaved bourgeoisie on the beaches and on the ski slopes. I yearned to see Leconte's Ridicule again while trying to stay awake during Moliere ... just as I squirmed through Besson's deplorable Angela, wanting another date with Leconte's Girl on the Bridge.

Most of the Leconte films we get could be called buddy films. Take Man on the Train, for instance. There, the director unveiled a series of epigram-spiced contrasts between the life of meditation and a life of action, between aristocratic languor and working class vigor and, ultimately, between France and America. How can a really French director work with America breathing down his neck?

My Best Friend is another buddy movie, of sorts. At the exterior of a taxi drivers' cafe, accordion music draws the camera inside. But the music that lures us turns out to be canned, coming from a tape deck. Inside, at a table, Bruno (Dany Boon) is lunching with his fellow cabbies. Bruno—a simple, open-faced, guileless man—has one goal in life: to be a TV game show contestant. Unfortunately, his nerves always fail him, and he perspires and stutters his way out of the audition. He lavishes his overflowing fountain of trivia on his passengers. They tolerate him because it's fun, in five-minute doses, to listen to someone discoursing on the origin of the word mayonnaise or whence the French slang term "Savoyards" for the delivery-van men.

Across town is another hard-to-fit man, a wealthy antique dealer called François (Daniel Auteuil). His techniques rival those of the ultimate antique-peddling scoundrel, Mr. Boggis in "Parson's Pleasure" by Roald Dahl. François even seals a deal with a widow in the reception line at a funeral. But something snaps in François during an auction when a valuable antiquity comes up. It's a large Grecian vase, decorated with figures of Patrocles and Achilles, dedicated by a grieving Athenian to the memory of a friend. Despite the warnings of his sleek business partner Catherine (Julie Gayet), François pays 200,000 euros for the vase.

Insulted at being ignored, but not showing it outwardly, Catherine calls François out during a dinner with his colleagues. She claims that François has no friends, only acquaintances. Everyone at the table agrees that it's true. And she bets him that he can't produce a best friend within the course of a week. The prize of the wager is the Greek vase.

Forced to realize that Catherine is right, the dealer studies friendship as if he had a test quiz on it. And then Bruno the friendly taxi driver turns up, ready to tutor him on the art of being sympathique.

Auteuil, with his foreshortened chin and furrowed brow, is one of France's driest comedians. It's a little hard to imagine him as a man without friends, perhaps; he's often covert, but he's never really remote. This is a case of the film's quality being all in the form, rather the concept. This middling idea was already better used as the source of a very good Simpsons episode. The plot's predictability makes this lesser Leconte, as well as the leisurely ending involving the French version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

What My Best Friend loses in originality it makes up in craft and precision. Leconte gives up sharp sketches of François' daughter Louise, whose anger at her selfish, oblivious dad has faded into fatigued contempt. A very sultry Julie Durand gives us a full character in just a few scenes. Gayet's smothered disappointment with François is easy to believe—more so than a bet as contrived as a bit in classical theater.

The image of the antique vase, as a symbol of lasting friendship, sticks with you. There's something haunting about the idea of eternity rebuking a contemporary moment of selfishness. Such a symbol doesn't come up that often in the movies—one of the best instances is the typically self-absorbed George Sanders being moved to sorrow by the plaster casts of the embracing dead of Pompeii in Voyage to Italy.

While he's too sharp to be narcotized by nostalgia, Leconte makes My Best Friend a gentle urging to remember that there was such a world once: a world when one had more time for leisure and conversation, for making friends instead of making money.

Movie Times MY BEST FRIEND (PG-13; 94 min.), directed and written by Patrice Leconte and starring Daniel Auteuil, Dany Boon and Julie Gayet, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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