"Before a kiss has been given, no one knows if it'll be big or small."
Although it's almost the final line of dialogue, this pithy thought encapsulates the entire message of Shall We Kiss?, a French film in which the sex--surprisingly--is secondary to the seduction.
It begins with the classic boy-meets-girl scenario. Two bright, affable people are immediately attracted to one another, although each is involved with another person. When she forestalls a kiss after an evening of tippling and talking, he is offered a story by way of explanation. This deceptive intro leads into the main plot, which revolves around Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), a married lab worker, and Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret), her single-but-looking best friend. After visiting a prostitute who refuses to kiss him, Nicolas admits to Judith his need for affection and intimacy in his relationships, a deficiency with which she hesitantly offers to help. Apparently smooching is a gateway drug to affection addiction. While their first bedroom scene is a painful study in awkward experimentation and undisclosed longing, the two flounder past the foreplay and soon are engaged in an about-the-town affair.
As the film flip-flops between the travails of Judith and Nicolas and the real-time tale of our initial couple Emilie (Julie Gayet) and Gabriel (Michael Cohen), the story, which began very straight forwardly, increasingly becomes soap-opera comic. Intrigues are planned, trysts engaged in, melodramatic "I can't see you, your mouth tempts me" scenes performed, and it's clear that this happy philandering cannot last. When Judith convinces one of Nicolas' ex-girlfriends to seduce her husband Claudio (Stefano Accorsi) as a sort of conciliatory measure, his discovery of the plot and his wife's infidelity lead to the end of Emilie's story. But there's one more tiny twist to the film, a final cinematic kiss-off that brings the story full circle.
Built on two premises--that of a love-at-first sight chance encounter and an affair between best friends--Shall We Kiss? manages to create a pleasant symbiosis of the two. The story, written and directed by lead actor Emmanuel Mouret, doesn't contain any depth or weightiness, but there's scarcely a need. The characters are completely without guile, their intentions and thoughts clearly written into their actions, and the actors all studiously keep their emotions on the surface. It's a bit like watching children enact an adult drama, with unintentional humor and levity arising from their naivete. But this is not a criticism. Mouret carefully uses this immature characterization to craft a welcome change from the exaggerated spectacles of "serious filmmaking." The meatiness in the third act--mostly embodied by the wronged Claudio--is enough that the story does not come off as pure fluff. Claudio, as the jilted but still loving third wheel, is the only real person in the film, but the audience understands that they're viewing a fantasy. It's necessary that he is absent for the majority of the 102-minute running time.
With excellently shallow performances by an engaging and likable cast, suitably sedate cinematography and an appropriately cautionary (although ultimately ignored) message about being particular with your puckerings, Shall We Kiss? is a finely executed, highly approachable import from the country that considers itself the expert on finding love.