French cinema has a remarkable gift for crafting understated movies that, despite their under-the-radar approach to storytelling, manage to explore the depth and totality of human experience in a way that Hollywood can only dream about.
Delicacy is a worthy heir to this innate French sensibility for subtle yet powerful narratives. It beautifully reflects the sense that great sadness and sublime joy can coexist in the one story and that they can be represented in quiet, simple ways that mirror what people actually go through. There is no recourse to over-emotive dialogue, forced moments or melodramatic twists, and the characters in this heartfelt story are allowed to respond as people actually would to the unexpected shifts in their lives.
It is this sense of genuineness and authenticity that comes through most strikingly in Delicacy.
You see it in the first few minutes after Nathalie (Audrey Tautou), an executive with a charmed life which crumbles to nothing as far as she is concerned when her husband and soulmate, Francois (Pio Marmai) is tragically killed, returns to their apartment after his funeral. Instead of this most painful of returns being glossed over and the story whisking us off to the next scene with grim impatience, we are allowed to linger with Nathalie as she sits alone, tears falling softly down her face. She is unsure of what her home means to her anymore with Francois gone, and how to move forward. So she sits… and mourns.
You see it later in the movie when, after three years, Nathalie has emerged from self-imposed exile from meaningful emotional connections with anyone but her best friend and parents. Caught up, again without warning, in a tentative romance which has sprung with a socially-awkward but funny member of her work group, Swede Markus Lundl (Francois Damiens), Nathalie is awkward and ill at ease. She likes Markus, and Markus quickly grows to adore her, but she isn’t sure what to do with those feelings. She fumbles and stumbles her way through to a point where she and Markus can move on with their lives together, but her journey there makes perfect sense for someone who has suffered so profound a loss.
And you see it when Markus, single and alone, suddenly realises he has the attention of a beautiful woman, and breaks into a rapturous, hardly-daring-to-believe-it smile one night alone in the office. You then see his hopes rise, get cruelly dashed when Nathalie fearfully pushes him away, and then re-emerge when Nathalie finally realises he is the one to accompany her on the rest of her walk back to normalcy. It resonates because of the truth inherent in the way Markus grapples with his lack of faith in either himself or the authenticity of Nathalie’s feelings.
What is moving about this story is that it doesn’t try to pretend that either party to this nascent romance is sure of what to do next. Many romantic comedies leave you with impression that falling in love is a mostly smooth, if occasionally obstacle strewn path trod by two people supremely confident of their lives. They may not be sure of love necessarily but they are sure of their ability to handle life. There is a sense of inevitability to these romances as if it would be absurd if they didn’t eventually form a union.
But Delicacy makes no such grandiose claims about its characters, and lets their stories unfold with all the missteps and mistakes that you would expect two emotionally-uncertain people to make when they are trying to work out what is going on between them.
And that is its great joy. There are of course a few smaller subplots that marginally complicate life for both parties, such as Nathalie’s (and Markus’s) boss, Charles (Bruno Todeschini) unrequited love for Nathalie, which also provides the film with one of its few laugh-out-loud moments. But for the most part the film centres on Nathalie and Markus with the fact that life never quite works out the way you envisage.
If Delicacy has one small failing, it is that it doesn’t address with any depth the way the way Nathalie’s friends would react to her having someone new in her life. After all, Francois and her were perfect together, and he was a much-loved bright, articulate, loving man. But then so is Markus in an entirely different way and you can see, almost before Nathalie does that while Markus may not be Francois, he is the one for her. It’s a pity that the movie didn’t touch on whether her friends would have seen it that way too. Certainly the one scene where Nathalie and Markus are with her friends is fraught with awkwardness as they realise that she has finally moved on and they aren’t sure what to do about that.
It is however a minor gripe in what is a perfectly realised depiction of grief and its aftereffects and what happens when life starts again whether you’re ready for it to do so or not.