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Eye of the Beholder: Nathalie Baye, Audrey Tautou and Mathilde Seigner star in 'Venus Beauty Institute.'

Mighty Aphrodites

Remarkable characters find love at the 'Venus Beauty Institute'

By Richard von Busack

ANGÈLE (Nathalie Baye) is a promiscuous pink-collar worker at an expensive but hardly exclusive Paris beauty salon. The salon has the high-flown name Venus Beauty Institute, also the title of this superb French comedy/drama. Angèle was doubly orphaned through a romantic crime of passion. This tragedy, and a needy, jealous streak, has made her reluctant to get involved with men in any way but the most basic level. Her bluntness seems justified, too, by what she sees at her job. She tends an endless succession of neglected married women trying waxes and lotions and ultraviolet sunbaths to hang on to their men. Half-listening to their stories has shaped Angèle into a brittle but resilient character. Sometimes, she's desperate, clinging and visibly aged--with, as her ex-husband says, "a tiny sad face and a flat ass"-- sometimes she's bewitchingly sexy in the half-light. You know the kind: sometimes vivacious, sometimes scary. In an American movie, Angèle would be dismissed as a dangerous nut, but here she's the sanest character. When a stranger starts making passionate declarations of love to her, it all seems logical. And it's also just as logical for her to try to see through this faithful, trusting suitor--for her to try to sleep with him fast and make him cut the nonsense. Venus Beauty Institute is the reverse of the typical romance--here it's the solid guy trying to get the field-playing woman to settle down.

The diverting cast keeps the story from somberness. The customers in the salon include a nudist, Madame Buisse (Claire Nebout), and a creep who mistakes the Venus Beauty Institute for what might be termed an unethical massage parlor. (His voice full of significance, he asks if they give "California massages" with "the finishing touches.") Edith Scob, star of Eyes Without a Face--a movie Naomi Wolf could have sourced for her book The Beauty Myth--has a cameo as a woman lamenting the condition of her skin. Bulle Ogier, recently seen as the irritable, alcoholic little blonde in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, is Madame Nadine, the proprietor. Baye gets fine support from her two fellow beauticians: the first, Samantha (Mathilde Seigner), is a big, clumping country girl as big as a Clydesdale; the second is Marie (Audrey Tautou), just as square as Samantha is easy. Marie is a maid who is being courted by an elder customer. He has a fantastic sob story: he was a pilot burned in an accident, and his wife sacrificed the skin of her bottom for grafts for his face, and now she's dead and he goes out and gets facials every week to preserve what's left of his late wife's ass.

Director Tonie Marshall builds up this movie into what looks like a classic of the anti-Christmastime genre. Here for the most part is a film sharp, witty, tart and cool enough to be a double bill for Bill Forsyth's Comfort and Joy. Unfortunately the last reel goes happily-ever-after. Venus Beauty Institute is a must-see, though, for Baye alone. This Angèle is an image of female toughness that shames all three of Charlie's Angels

Venus Beauty Institute (Not rated; 110 min.) written and directed by Tonie Marshall, photographed by Gérard de Battista and starring Nathalie Baye and Bulle Ogier, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the November 23-29, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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