Luc Bondy’s False Confessions adapts Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux’s 18th-century farce of the same name to a contemporary setting, merging modern clothes and performance styles with the original dialogue. This mixtape approach ironically renders the source material more antiquated than if it had been transferred to the screen as a period piece. It’s odd to watch as actors as hip and decisively modern as Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel pace a large mansion fretting over whether or not to couple in an age of supposed sexual freedom, consulting a dozen supporting characters for assistance with their tedious romantic machinations. This oddness is deliberately courted by Bondy, who’s probably attempting to land a point about the similarities that exist between past and present caste systems. But that conceit is intellectualized here to the point of irrelevance.
False Confessions is a trim farce with no blood flowing under its skin, as it’s all construction, setup, and payoff. The theoretically breezy first act is so convoluted that one is likely to be more preoccupied with sorting the characters out than surrendering to the love story, which is clouded by half-dozen competing motivations. Araminte (Huppert) is a master of a house, and her hand in marriage is the film’s driving MacGuffin. Dorante (Garrel) is a young and handsome man who’s hired as Araminte’s secretary with the help of Dorante’s uncle, Monsieur Rémy (Bernard Verley). Araminte’s driver, Dubois (Yves Jacques), has a secret pact with Dorante to help him win Araminte’s heart, a pursuit that, for some reason, involves a long con in which Dorante is to woo a young employee of Araminte’s, Marton (Manon Combes).
Farce is like a meringue: You have to whip it up just so, making effort look effortless, merging intricate trope with a soupçon of spontaneity so as to achieve an oxymoronic impression of chaotic inevitability. This script understandably doesn’t appear to mean anything to these actors, who give performances that are skillful yet impersonal. Huppert is agelessly stylish and sexy, but her work here could’ve been piped in from any of her 20 most recent films. Correspondingly, Garrel doesn’t vary the tenor of Dorante’s interactions with Araminte and Marton; the character’s love for Araminte is so instant and unquestioned that it seems fake, until the last act that depends on our taking this relationship seriously. Huppert and Garrel have chemistry, and the pronounced May-December texture of their pairing invests their rapport with an erotic tang, but the plot keeps getting in their way. And the supporting performances are vivid in a formulaic fashion: robust, sensual, and bellowing precisely where a viewer of any previous farce will expect them to be.
Bondy’s staging is minimalist and angular, rendering the intricate narrative in a series of elegant compositions that dramatize romantic confusion as a series of duels. But the romance itself has been freeze-dried in formalist self-consciousness, suggesting an Alain Resnais film as a meal for astronauts.