An amusing enough trifle, Shall We Kiss? weights its airy setup—the romantic roundelays of a few pretty, mostly vacuous thirtysomethings, divorced from any concrete reality—with extended conversations probing the question of what it means to love and the thin line between lust and a more genuine intimacy. Talk is the order of the day in this film, but just as the characters attempt without much success to understand and control their situations by constantly throwing words at them, so writer-director Emmanuel Mouret’s glib musings on the nature of love can’t disguise the fact that he’s crafted a film of very little consequence, even as it offers up its share of squirm-inducing chuckles.
Following the introduction of a framing device in which a couple meet cute on the streets of Nantes, only for the woman to balk at a goodnight kiss, the film flashes back and commences its central narrative. Offered up by the woman as an explanation for withholding her embrace, this interior story details, in all its gawky preliminaries and subsequent complications, the process by which longtime platonic friends become lovers and the consequences of such a shift. The parties in question are Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), a married chemist, and Nicolas (Mouret), a grade-school teacher coming off a recently-ended relationship and suffering from a want of intimacy. When Judith offers to cure her friend of his “lack of physical affection,” the two fumble their way toward sex in a protracted scene which Mouret plays for cringe-inducing laughter, wringing uncomfortable yuks from the awkward uncertainty of the couple’s tentative foreplay.
After the initial encounter, the two eventually realize they’ve fallen in love, though not before some further efforts to deny it. And just as they talk their way into initiating a sexual relationship, so they attempt to talk their way out of it. Following a pair of subsequent trysts in which the couple tries to prove there’s nothing between them, however, they give in to the inevitable and set about plotting to stay together. Judith and Nicolas may try to dictate the terms of their relationship through the force of spoken language, but in Shall We Kiss? words prove powerless when confronted with emotions, the characters’ conscious attempts to define the course of their lives working at cross-purposes both to their authentic feelings and to the director’s narrative manipulations, which, as the film moves toward its final act, increasingly draw on neat coincidences to determine the course of events.
In the end, if all the characters’ talk only leads to greater confusion, it hardly matters too greatly. Judith and Nicolas, as well as the two key supporting players, are likable enough young things and their romantic misadventures certainly provide their share of amusement, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that theirs is an essentially trifling matter, a question of no particular import to anyone (the viewer included), except of course the two self-obsessed individuals awkwardly blundering around up on the screen. Confining his action to a few thinly defined settings, using almost exclusively neutral backgrounds (at least in the central narrative), Mouret ensures that his film has no connection with any recognizable reality, instead creating an abstracted space in which his pretty leads can play out their matters of the heart, unimpeded by any complicating social considerations. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with such an insular, apolitical approach, in this context it only reinforces the feeling that, for all the film’s musings on the nature of love, what we’re dealing with here is a hopelessly makeweight affair, a finely-crafted, but ultimately dispensable bit of entertainment.