Change of Plans, Danièle Thompson’s skillfully executed comedy of manners, is either deeply profound or insupportably shallow—most likely the latter. The film features 11 carefully delineated major characters, a complex flash-forward structure, and touches on the essential questions of what makes romantic and familial relationships work and fail, the lies and sacrifices necessary to sustain these relationships, and the way that fate intervenes to alter people’s not-so-carefully laid plans. Yet, given the fact that the movie confines itself almost exclusively to the cloistered world of the haute bourgeoisie (a group whose narrow perspective Thompson pokes light but affectionate fun at), has almost no interest or awareness of the outside world and finally has little to say about the way human relationships function, except that they’re utterly subject to unexpected bouts of cosmic intervention, one gets the feeling that all the director’s expertly rendered plot manipulations and excess of incident and character serve largely as a smokescreen to cover up the essential inconsequentiality of the work.
Revolving around a dinner party and its aftermath, Change of Plans begins with a series of preliminary exchanges that showcase both the director’s expository skill and her interest in the gentlest forms of satire. A quick sketch artist, Thompson, with a few carefully observed conversations and great economy of gesture, introduces the gallery of characters who plan to dine at the house of ML (Karin Viard), a fierce divorce lawyer, and Piotr (Dany Boon), a depressive househusband, later that evening. As they make their preparations for the party, the characters complain about having to eat scallops three times in one week, stress over the last-minute changes to the guest list, or pray in church for the ability to make it through the evening, so that by the time they arrive at ML and Piotr’s house, the viewer is easily able to distinguish between the different guests and their varying degrees of superficial concerns.
But being forced to constantly eat scallops is one thing, adulterous attraction quite another, and, as the dinner party progresses, the characters’ concerns move from the shallow to the slightly less shallow: The attempts of a lawyer to recruit ML to his firm, the question of whether or not a gynecologist will work up the courage to leave her husband, and, in the film’s weakest narrative strand, the inability of the host’s sister to forgive their father for a past transgression. It’s all very carefully handled, Thompson able to keep several conversations afloat at once, expertly cutting between one-, two-, and three-shots at the dinner table with consummate ease. Yet, for all the urgency of these issues in the characters’ lives, it’s hard for the viewer to involve himself in their importance, probably because there are simply too many characters to follow, but also because their concerns seem so helplessly narcissistic. With the exception of a doctor’s anguish over one dying cancer patient and his success with another and the spontaneous free play of the various Parisian musicians glimpsed throughout the film (the movie takes place on Street Music Night) whose centrifugal energy stands in marked contrast to the internalized ruts of the characters, we’re locked eternally in with our dull bunch, hermetically sealed against the problems of the world.
In the end, Change of Plans is little more than a skillful juggling act—albeit a highly skillful one—whose intricacies becomes more apparent once the complexities of the structure are revealed. About a third of the way through, the film lurches forward in time a year, registering with a minor shock the significant changes in the characters’ lives. After this Almodóvarian leap (and the Spanish director seems a model in Thompson’s understanding of how time and fate force narratively interesting changes in her characters), the filmmaker cuts back and forth between the initial present of the party and a year later, allowing the flash-forwards to affect our understanding of the earlier dinner. The complexity of the plotting reaches a head when, in a “future” sequence, one character suspects his wife of having an affair with another character and the latter turns out to be the husband of the initial character’s business associate, but since that associate is pregnant with her husband’s child, he won’t reveal the results of his findings, even though it centrally effects the pair’s business pursuits. If that sounds overly complicated, it is, and if, in Thompson’s handling, it comes off with remarkable clarity, it still feels like so much empty exercise. So does the rest of the film, in which the characters’ self-absorption is mirrored by that of the director. Within her chosen milieu, Thompson knows just what she’s doing, it’s just that her lack of interest in anything outside her preferred realm of privileged narcissism reveals the ultimate failure of vision behind a superficially talented filmmaker.