Director Thierry Klifa has constructed a compact examination of one man’s ignoble decision to engage in a long-forgotten romance during a prolonged state of engagement with his longtime bride-to-be, and while the brisk editing and slightly impressionistic scenes manage to keep the films far away from whiny melodrama, Une vie à t'attendre is also a cold movie, with one of those interminable unresolved finales that doesn’t satisfy anyone.
The underplayed performances are double-edged swords, because while the emphasis is on nuances and subtle gestures, it also makes the characters a bit chilly. Alex (Patrick Bruel) is the most compelling, largely because he has the most to lose: longtime girlfriend Claire (Géraldine Pailhas), set on marriage and starting a family; the friends with whom he works at the family restaurant he now manages; and younger brother Julien (Ils’ Michaël Cohen) over whom he’s excessively protective.
Julien is mostly a peripheral character, and he largely functions as the elder brother’s whipping boy whenever Alex becomes overstressed from playing father figure to a family screw-up. When Alex’ bullying reaches a breaking point, Julien’s desperate attempt at freedom is handled quite abruptly; a brother-to-brother scene resolves nothing, and Julien is subsequently dropped from the film.
Claire does remain a potent character largely because she’s shown as the link through which Alex can settle down and into a formally paternal life – something he’s been fighting since he took control of a family business that curtailed a short-lived aspiration to become an artist – and it’s intriguing to watch her attempts to maintain dignity when Alex starts to court past love Jeanne (Nathalie Baye), intent on returning to France with her young son.
Baye struggles to give Jeanne as much warmth as she can – the more successful efforts are in scenes with mom Emilie (Danielle Darrieux) – but even a outdoor cantina scene, where Jeanne serenades Alex with a local band, barely elevates her character beyond the Other Woman archetype; she’s a self-gratifying home wrecker, although Alex is equally complicit in the slow destruction of his life.
Director/co-writer Klifa and co-writer Christopher Thompson (Décalage horaire / Jet Lag) keep the focus on that destruction, and overall Jeanne is never depicted as mean-spirited; her curiosity to rekindle an old romance evolves (quickly) into something selfish, and one senses Alex was already hovering in a state of boredom and unhappiness already, quite primed for a distraction that might rescue him from a paternal and business life he never wanted.
Because the scriptwriters never aspire to capture raw intimacy – all of Alex and Jeanne’s sexual rendezvous are clipped with fadeouts – the muted finale is perfectly in tune with the overall dramatic dullness of most scenes. We never believe Alex will get on the plane with Jeanne because Alex’ persona has been shaped into a paternal figure: there’s simply no way he’d abandon his brother, friends, the business, and his pregnant girlfriend. It’s his character’s makeup, and that lack of (mis)adventure means the film itself is equally dull.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan