Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Coco Before Chanel director Anne Fontaine's first film in English, sees the two mothers of the title (Robin Wright, Naomi Watts) fall for each other's son (James Frecheville, Xavier Samuel).

On paper it sounds as though it might take us into some dark Life And Loves Of A She Devil psychological territory. In fact, the situation is played with an off-hand glibness that barely leaves a lipstick mark on the surface of what the quartet are doing.

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Fontaine is a capable director and her visual storytelling, which sees the girls as childhood best buddies growing to adulthood and their sons, in turn, surfing their way from youngsters to teenagers, is economical and impressive. She also makes good use of visuals to show the closeness and, at times, distance between the menage a quatre.

But the moment that the dialogue begins, any nuance is lost, with key emotional moments generating laughter rather than empathy. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton has plenty of good work on his CV, not least Atonement and Dangerous Liaisons, but he shows none of that flair here. The first conversation after the two women realise what the other has been doing, sees not an outburst of emotion but merely one asking the other: "What have we done?" to get a reply that sounds as though it has escaped from the Bourne franchise: "We've crossed the line." Really? You don't say.

The main problem is that the characters are thinly drawn. Wright gets what little emotional complexity there is but Watts' character is called upon to behave so appallingly and counter-intuitively that you can't believe it. Frecheville and Samuel, meanwhile, are treated as little more than himbos. Sure, they look great with no clothes on but we never see them discussing what has happened, which means their relationship lacks tension.

This lack of friction is a recurrent problem. In one scene, for instance, the two of them try to drown one another. We know this not because their dynamic has been built to powder keg proportions but because a. One of them helpfully declares: "I'm going to kill you!" and b. because one of the mums says: "Oh God, they're trying to kill each other!" The fight is over as soon as it began, with nothing more than a sullen silence over lunch.

When key moments of dramatic revelation provoke unintentional giggling from the audience, it's time to worry and Fontaine said she was confused by the laughter in the cinema at the film's premiere, adding: "I don't know what it means exactly." Unfortunately for her, it means her film's relationship with its audience is, like her characters, in a very bad place.

Reviewed on: 20 Jan 2013
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A pair of lifelong friends fall for one another's sons.
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Director: Anne Fontaine

Writer: Christopher Hampton

Starring: Naomi Watts, Robin Wright, Xavier Samuel, James Frechevile

Year: 2013

Runtime: 112 minutes

Country: Australia, France

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