There aren’t many places better to start when reviewing a body of work than at the beginning, so here we are with Venus Beauty Institute ‘Vénus Beauté (Institute)’, Audrey Tautou’s first feature film and winner of four César awards (including ‘Most Promising Actress’ for Tautou). Focusing on the loneliness of Parisian beautician Angèle (Nathalie Baye) Venus explores the fling life of a 40 year-old woman who refuses to believe in love.
Interestingly, considering the extent of man-talk that does go down, Venus Beauty does pass the Bechdel Test, but just barely, thanks to its Coronation Street-levels of salon babble that fill up the film’s non-plot essential scenes. You don’t, however, find yourself wanting to put a bullet in your head though because the quiet sadness of Angèle is far more appealing than the drama that occurs in Audrey’s hair salon.
The French Vera Farmiga, Nathalie Baye has just the right amount of modest beauty to casually approach another man every other night yet not come off as a bit of a tart. Rather, her monotonous life of making others beautiful whist she steadily grows older and more alone is really quite affecting and her life outside of work fulfils her desperate need for necessary change.
Tonie Marshall’s direction is extremely reserved, telling her story with ordinary set-up, angles and colour in order to make Angèle’s tale all the more dull (in a good way). As we occasionally pry into the more exciting lives of her co-workers, Sam (Mathilde Seigner), the quintessence of 90’s punk rocker, and the wide-eyed Marie (Audrey Tautou), we get insight into varying stages of happiness, with Tautou’s Marie the only character truly happy in this world as she falls for a widowed male client and gives us one of the raciest Disturbingly Old Man With Young Woman sex scenes ever. Whilst Tautou’s part is small it’s not hard to see why her adolescent, sheepish charm would go on to put her in the spotlight for years to come.
Venus Beauty, as the title may hint at, has a lot to say about love and attraction, and what draws us in is how ugly it can be. Not ugly in the sense of a Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler rom-com where it’s all melodrama and tears, but ugly in the sense of genuine unhappiness and a relatable conventionality.
Thanks to the film’s salon setting there are a whole host of side characters that reappear between the heavier plot beats to either make our eyes pop (the patron who likes to come naked, bar a coat) or make us chuckle (the actress who turns up for treatment in a myriad of funny costumes). Venus Beauty is definitely for the sad-hearted who have a tub of Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer. If you like French films that focus on the depressing love life of a mid-40s woman then this is certainly the film for you.