Angélique Delange (Isabelle Carré) might well be the best chocolate-maker in France, not that anyone would know it. While she was once the mystery chocolatier of the world-famous Mercier Maison du Chocolat, the secret of her true talents died with Monsieur Mercier himself. At an interview for a new job, she meets equally introverted Jean-René (Benoît Poelvoorde), the manager of a Maison du Chocolat on the verge of bankruptcy. While neither will admit it, it’s love at first sight. With an arsenal of wily tricks up her sleeve, Angélique plans to reinvigorate Jean-René’s ailing chocolate company without revealing her secret identity… hoping to win his heart somewhere along the way.
What saves this film from descending into sickly sweetness is the genuine likability of its two leads. The casting is inspired: Isabelle Carré (A la folie, pas du tout) is fantastic as the bird-like Angélique and Benoît Poelvoorde (Coco Before Chanel, Man Bites Dog) delivers a beautifully nuanced performance as sweet but misunderstood Jean-René, who loves and fears women in equal measure. While Angélique attends ‘Emotifs Anonymes’, an AA-style group for the overly emotional, Jean-René can only be spurred into human interactions by his therapist’s weekly challenges.
What coaxes them out of their respective shells is a shared passion for their chosen metier: chocolate. Both Angélique and Jean-René come to life when they speak about it. While Angélique struggles to sell the companies’ wares door-to-door, she lights up when she describes them to her Emotifs Anonymes group. For these two, chocolate is pure art, their only opportunity to shrug off their inhibitions and immerse themselves in the thing they love. Conversations on the subject allow Améris to include some brilliantly clumsy cocoa-based innuendos that sound like they’ve sprung directly out of a biology textbook.
Romantics Anonymous’ visual style has been constructed with the attention and care of a gourmet sugar cage. The wardrobe is fantastic: Angélique’s pea-green coat, beret and red tartan scarf give her a child-like impishness, while at the same time seeming just a little too well put-together, a little over-thought. The warm, earthy tones of the wardrobe are set off by the film’s bright autumnal locations. While chocolate might seem too sickly in the summer and Christmas screams cliché, Romantics Anonymous suits Autumn’s crunchy leaves and frosty cobbled streets.
To top it all off, Améris’ choice of music is spot-on. While this is in no way a musical, he does allow both his characters their own little melodic moments. Angélique occasionally launches into ‘J’ai confiance en moi’ (‘I Believe in Myself’), a lyric which is brilliantly accompanied by an awkward little jig – utterly unconvincing but undeniably endearing. Meanwhile, Jean-René’s performance of ‘Ocho chyornye’ (‘Dark Eyes’) in the restaurant shows a completely different side to his character. Dropped in at just the right moments, the timing for these scenes always strikes just the right note.
This is not your typical romantic comedy. Jean-René and Angélique are not kept apart by the fates conspiring against them; the only thing that holds the hapless couple back are themselves. What might seem completely natural to any other person is absolutely unthinkable for these two; a typical trip to the restaurant is an assault course full of tricks and traps to be negotiated. Jean-René has to bring an entire briefcase of shirts along to the date with him, sweating through each one in a matter of minutes.
What sets this apart from the standards of the genre is that these aren’t wise-cracking, spritely, perma-tanned 20-somethings; both Angélique and Jean-René are getting on a bit and worried that they will never have the confidence to find someone to love. American romcom-by-numbers producers should take a leaf of Améris’ book; Forgetting Sarah Marshall this is not. I think the key lies in the fact that we can all see a little bit of ourselves in these two, we would all rather hide from life sometimes than face it head-on. After all, Améris himself attended the very same Emotifs Anonymes group he places Angélique in. Maybe that is what helped him to tap in so perfectly to those feelings we all have, to that side of ourselves that sometimes holds us back from pursuing what makes us happy. Sweet and charming, but not sickly, Romantics Anonymous is a genuine delight.
Reviewed by Avalon Lyndon