Watching Madame is like eating a pretty little pastry, that looks appealing but is ultimately tasteless and filled mostly with air. The appeal of the film lies in its visuals, the rich interiors of houses, the fashionable clothing of its characters and the sunny sophisticated streets of Paris. Beyond these pretty views is a very thinly written comedy of class, wealth and social manners that never manages to be remotely entertaining, let alone funny.
Finding out that the film is both written and directed by French filmmaker and playwright Amanda Sthers will come as a shock, since the film feels like it was made by someone who has never visited Europe or met a European before. Characters are reduced to cliches, the French are all smart and beautiful adulterers, the Spanish are fiery and passionate, the Americans are rich and vulgar and the English are bewilderingly smug and class-obsessed. The audience can only imagine that Sthers was aiming for a French Woody Allen-style comedy of errors and a sort of modern version of an 18th century drawing room farce, perhaps even echoing the themes of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Unfortunately it feels as if perhaps some of the humour got lost in translation as jokes fall flat, dialogue fails to be witty and romantic scenes lack any frisson or dramatic tension.
The film tells the story of a rich married American couple called Anne (Toni Collette) and Bob (Harvey Keitel) who live in Paris and decide to hold a dinner party for 12 friends. When Bob’s son turns up unexpectedly and makes it an odd number of 13 at the table, suspicious Anne insists on the family housekeeper and maid Maria (Rossy de Palma) coming to dinner disguised as a rich guest. Over dinner, Maria catches the eye of David (Michael Smiley), a wealthy British art dealer and begins a relationship with him much to the annoyance of Anne. Despite the initial plot containing some potential elements for a decent comedy of confusion and class subversion, the film fails to truly allow Maria to shine as a character. We get to know very little about the maid and most of the screen time is spent on Anne, a woman who becomes more unlikable by the second.
The cast of Madame is made up of accomplished actors and although Keitel is woefully miscast, Toni Collette does accurately portray a woman who is ridiculous not only in her snobbery but also in her inability to realise what a truly spoiled egotistic she is. Rossy de Palma does a decent job with the little characterisation the script gives her but there is absolutely no romantic tension between her and Michael Smiley. Their romance not only seems unbelievable to Anne and her rich family, but also to the audience themselves. The viewer spends a good portion of the film wondering why they should invest time and energy in finding out what happens to nervous Maria or insufferable Anne and if they should care about Bob’s business troubles.
Much of the dialogue takes place between characters in social settings, sitting at a fancy dinner or relaxing by a pool. It is supposed to be witty, but it is delivered so abruptly and yet also mumbled that it is hard at times to understand what anyone is actually saying. The pacing between scenes seems all wrong, with dramatic scenes lacking any tension and comedic set pieces falling completely flat. Characters make sweeping statements about sex, life and culture, speaking like people would never speak in real life and most of the conversation between the main characters feels forced and pretentious. The swelling romantic soundtrack compels the audience to feel moved at Maria’s plight, but since she is not on screen so often, it is hard to feel any emotional connection to her.
The most interesting parts of Madame were well filmed scenes of servants performing different tasks in meticulous detail, such as preparing for a formal dinner party or laying a tray with tea and small cakes. The film perhaps gives us an insight in to the effort and labour that goes in to running a wealthy household and that the lifestyle of the extremely rich is built upon the hard work of others.