Love is never having to say I love you, goes the tone of “La Bande du Drugstore,” a love story in which the couple meet in the beginning for about five minutes, and then proceed to spend the next 12 months obsessing about each other without actually getting together. Such a scenario might seem unusual in this day and age; with all that cyberspace communicating, there’s practically no excuse for love birds to not get in touch.
But “La Bande” is set in France in the mid 1960s, when, if you wanted to say your “je t’aime,” it meant getting hold of a phone (not such an easy thing to do back then), writing lengthy letters on chic notepaper or dictating a telegram at the post office (all scenes figure prominently in the movie and show how romantic engineering was so essential).
It was also a time when cool meant combining one’s existential angst with British shoes, and enshrouding the whole package in billows of Gitanes smoke, preferably in a basement club like Drugstore — a real-life bar on Champs-Elysee that was destroyed by a fire in 1972. Writer/Director Francois Armanet was obviously enamored with the bar and the period: The film masterfully re-enacts the particular ambience described in, say, the writings of Boris Vian or Jean-Paul Sartre.
But although Armanet might have captured the ambience, “La Bande” is crippled by a lack of evocative, intelligent dialogue. The characters — privileged 18-year-olds from good families — bandy about such typical teenage tripe as “Are you going to nail her?” and “I had sex with this really fat girl” and “You don’t know how to make a girl feel good” and, well, it goes on for the entire movie.
If anything makes these people compelling, it’s their postpuberty, sophisticated good looks (most of the cast are in their mid-20s) offset by the Anglified attire of ’60s French youth. They go around in argyle sweaters, button-down Oxford shoes and a lot of dark corduroy, but instead of resembling some BBC archive footage, they look maddeningly sexy and terribly urbane. It’s too bad the conversations don’t match their looks: Although the era was all about revolution and political debate, the band in “La Bande” concentrate exclusively on sex. The movie should come with an advisory notice of hormonal overdose.
Especially annoying are the guys: The sexually immature Philippe (Mathieu Simonet) and the overly active Marc (Aurelien Wilk). Philippe is a philosophy student with a brilliant mean streak he deploys on occasion to smash the egos of people not in his favor. Marc’s instincts run more to punching faces and pulling pranks — it gets so bad that his wealthy Jewish family temporarily sends him to a kibbutz to lay low and chill out. Both are friends with Nathalie (Alice Taglioni) who assumes the role of peacemaker, older sister and dispenser of amorous advice. She introduces them to her best friend, Charlotte (Cecil Cassel), at the latter’s birthday party and for Philippe, it’s love at first sight.
Charlotte seems to feel the same, but after a tentative kiss on the dance floor, the pair play it cool. After that, their meetings are awkward and brief, brimming with unnamed resentment. Charlotte expects the arrogant, self-assured Philippe to make a move, but Philippe is actually steeped in insecurities. In the meantime, Nathalie seduces Philippe and, after sex, kindly tells him that he has a lot to learn, sorry. Shell-shocked by her words, Philippe becomes determined to practice on any willing girl, and to hell with the emotional consequences. Charlotte, who had been holding out for true love, also decides to get the whole virginity thing over with. She asks Marc point-blank to sleep with her, but the experience turns out to be less than enthralling for both.
Ah, the delicious misunderstandings and misery of it all! Normally, I’m all for these romantic complications but somehow, I found it difficult to care whether Charlotte and Philippe got together or not. In a different movie, perhaps they would have been deserving of sympathy but in “La Bande,” they just cause a mild case of irritation, mainly because of their relentless self-absorption and sex-centered brains. Their friends aren’t much better: Nathalie has no qualms about sleeping with Charlotte’s widower father right under Charlotte’s nose and Marc’s carnal oafishness makes him one of the most offensive (French) male characters in recent memory.
“La Bande” is to be enjoyed for the visuals that include the resplendent Normandy countryside, an excellent wardrobe and a soundtrack that’s a rather obvious tribute to the era (“Friday on My Mind” and “Chain of Fools” follow Charlotte and Philippe wherever they go). Like the adolescent characters, it’s a movie that refuses too much scrutiny or analysis — the trick is to just seize whatever moment gives most pleasure, and sip from it as you would a casual drink. Above all, “La Bande” is a lesson in what constitutes romantic sexuality: silence, distance, the secret gauging of the other person’s desires from a veneer of pretended coldness. All the things in fact, that modern-day romance seldom has time for anymore.