Undeniably slight but also deftly disarming, the French romantic comedy “Jet Lag” contrives to update the “Brief Encounter” situation by combining the skills of two genuine stars, Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno, with a distinctive locale, Charles de Gaulle International Airport outside Paris. No marital scruples stand in the way of a budding romance when strikes by air traffic controllers and railway employees suspend all flights, enabling Miss Binoche’s Rose, a successful makeup artist, to cross paths with Mr. Reno’s Felix, a successful French chef.
Both are middle-aged singles whose expendable baggage includes suffocating attachments. We’re directly confronted with Rose’s abusive boyfriend, Sergio, an unsavory cameo for Sergi Lopez, who played the psychopathic title character in “With a Friend Like Harry …” It’s evident that Rose will be better off without Sergio. Indeed, she has impulsively booked a flight to Acapulco in order to elude both Sergio and a domineering, needful mother, never seen.
The film also remains far removed from the girlfriend named Nadia, whom Felix has flown the Atlantic to meet. His New York flight landed in Paris, and he’s stalled because a connecting flight to Munich is delayed by the strikes. Evidently intending something decisive, he seems to self-induce an anxiety attack that bystanders, including Rose, mistake for a possible coronary. Minutes earlier, Rose borrowed Felix’s cell phone, having lost her own in a freak mishap in the lavatory; she thought it imperative to place a couple of apologetic and ill-advised calls before making her getaway. Having imposed on this total stranger, she feels obliged to hover until he’s discharged by an airport doctor.
The reciprocal good turns culminate in an offer by Felix to share his room at a nearby Hilton in Roissy when it becomes clear that flights will remain grounded overnight. The manipulations of writer-director Daniele Thompson and her co-writer, Christopher Thompson, also her son, become more perplexing during this pivotal interlude of awkward intimacy.
Far from hitting it off, Rose and Felix begin to get on each other’s nerves while getting acquainted over a room-service meal, highlighted by an electrifying moment during the salad course: Miss Binoche gets an accidental splash of vinaigrette in the kisser, obliging Rose to wipe off her exaggerated makeup and let down her hair.
The sneaky Thompsons demonstrate a remarkable flair for delaying and orchestrating reconciliation. Rose and Felix don’t start to relax with each other until she has almost left in a taxi. Having retrieved their heroine, the filmmakers invent a beguiling set of episodes in which she’s the late-night queen of the hotel, luxuriating alone in the pool and then treated to a gourmet snack from Felix, who has commandeered the empty kitchen.
Even with a fond understanding now on the front burner, the filmmakers devise another flurry of separations back at the airport that demand long-distance acts of trust and reconciliation in order to salvage a relationship. The movie creates an unreasonable mood of happiness down the stretch by trivializing a new geographical gulf that opens up between the characters. It’s contradicted by the prospect of their next, presumably decisive, reunion — and by the infectious giddiness of Eric Serra’s musical score, which acquires a bracing Latin inflection when Rose lands in Acapulco for what must be the briefest visit in travel history.
“Jet Lag” seems to transcend its obvious weaknesses by reminding you of how satisfying it can be to watch stellar performers authenticate a relationship whose credibility is always far-fetched. The French seemed to believe that they hadn’t seen Miss Binoche and Mr. Reno in quite these vulnerable guises before, as sort of uncommon commoners, professionally successfully but emotionally forlorn, one a runaway daughter and the other a prodigal son.
The profiles won’t stand much scrutiny, but while the movie is unfolding, you don’t mind being persuaded by its benevolence and gracefulness. Rose and Felix grow irresistible as a movie shortcut to mutually redemptive romance. Despite its brevity and opportunism, “Jet Lag” emerges as such a delightful con that it almost approximates Rose’s description of a fond daydream: that she could experience “a whole day like an American film.”
@Byhead:MOVIES / GARY ARNOLD
TITLE: “Jet Lag”
RATING: R (Occasional profanity and frequent sexual candor)
CREDITS: Directed by Daniele Thompson. Screenplay by Daniele Thompson and Christopher Thompson. Cinematography by Patrick Blossier. In French with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS