As simultaneously tasty and insubstantial as the bite-sized pieces of chocolate that its characters create, Jean-Pierre Améris’s Romantics Anonymous is a typically anodyne rom-com given a certain poignant piquancy by the paralyzing shyness of its romantic leads. As chocolatier Angélique (Isabelle Carré) explains to potential boss Jean-René (Benôit Poelvoorde) during her job interview, it’s the bitterness that defines a bar of chocolate, a quality that also characterizes the lives of both characters, who are so overwhelmed with fear (of life in general, but especially human contact) that neither can seemingly function in the world. Jean-René oversees a failing chocolate enterprise whose terrible product proves the operation’s downfall; Angélique is a brilliant chocolate maker and her recipes the key to saving Jean-René‘s trade, but she’s so morbidly self-effacing, she can only practice her art anonymously and thus won’t cop to her skills. Instead she’s assigned the position of sales rep until her secret talents eventually reveal themselves and she comes to the rescue of not only Jean-René‘s business, but his stopped-up heart.
Although never straying too far from the conventions of the genre (unexpected romantic opportunities, missed connections, comic set pieces), the film’s whimsical tone is continually undercut by an air of subdued melancholy and its mode of humor is less riotous than pathetic. Which is to say that even the farcical antics of an extended comedic sequence are tempered by the look of perpetual sadness on Jean-René‘s face and the air of disappointed optimism on Angélique’s. In other words, this is pathetic humor in the sense that it generates pathos along with laughter (or, often, in its place). In the film’s most extended set piece, a squirm-inducing first date between the central couple is continually interrupted by the sweat-drenched Jean-René‘s constant trips to a restaurant bathroom to change his besotted shirts. By the time he bails on the evening by escaping through the washroom window, he’s ceased to be a figure of fun and become an object of pity.
But pity isn’t the central attitude evoked by Améris’s film, even if its main characters are legitimate subjects for our emotional charity. A winningly sympathetic look at individuals whose irrational fear of life has reduced them to the margins of functionality, Romantics Anonymous suggests that even the most hopeless cases can be helped by sympathetic support groups (the eponymous organization that Angélique frequents), friends, and the romantic possibilities afforded by a similarly afflicted partner. The film may not dig much below the surface in its portraiture of these individuals, and it may not offer much in the way of laughs, but it’s sweet in a way that’s not cloying and it’s not unpleasant going down. Like a good piece of dark chocolate, Améris’s movie is tasty enough, but with just that right amount of bitterness.