“Happy people make my ass twitch.” Oh, what a turn of phrase. Kevin Kline’s stunningly cliche French accent drove that into my brain as a child and it’s still a line that will pop up in my brain here and there to this day. This film’s existence should be offensive the the entire country of France, but it winds up being just charming enough to squeak through.
I’m speaking, of course, about the 1995 rom-com French Kiss.
Boring history teacher Kate (Meg Ryan) declines an invitation to join her boyfriend (Timothy Hutton) in Paris as she dislikes their entire culture for some reason and is also afraid of flying. They live in Canada and Kate is desperate for her citizenship to come through. While she waits for this she purchases a new home for her and [insert whatever the boyfriend’s name is here] and plans their wedding. Her boyfriend calls from Paris to dump her, citing his newfound love for French “goddess” Juliette (Susan Anbeh), and she suffers through the flight to Paris to get him back. Her seatmate winds up being Luc Teyessier (Kevin Kline), a surly Frenchman that is returning to America after having stolen some diamonds he wants to sell so he can purchase a vineyard. He slips the diamonds in her purse on landing as she is less likely to be searched (pre-9/11, just go with it) and there’s a bromance going on with Inspector Jean-Claude Cardon (Jean Reno). It’s all very cute from here.
Look, all of this sounds wildly convoluted and ridiculous. I beg you to look beyond that and actually watch the film, one that has grown quite special to my heart. This was used like many films on this list – a way for my mother to have a movie she enjoyed on in the background that served as a punishment for me since I only wanted to watch sci-fi. I absorbed a lot of it, listening to Luc talk about wine as I learned tips that would sound good on dates as an adult. I listened to his cynical view of the world and latched onto it. I watched Meg Ryan be charming (seriously, when isn’t she?) and developed a wild crush. It was just a cacophony of things happening all at once that young Clint took to heart.
And why not? While there’s a lot of fluff, director Lawrence Kasdan focuses on character work instead of the goofier aspects of the film. There are long stretches where you forget about the stolen necklace or the affair that [insert whatever the boyfriend’s name is here] is having because you’re so focused on the behaviors and minds of our two leads. Everything in a film like this comes down to performance as Kasdan behind the camera is doing “doable” and “passable.” And why not? Kevin Kline is going balls-to-the-wall goofy with this performance, his weirdest since A Fish Called Wanda and definitely one of his most charming. I don’t know if I’ve seen a performance develop into something so cheesy without being off-putting, but his chemistry with Meg Ryan helps stabilize everything. She’s more nitpicky and needling here than in When Harry Met Sally… but somehow she winds up being elevated. Don’t get me wrong, this is not as on-point or cutting as Rob Reiner’s masterpiece, but it’s a charmingly flawed script that lets Kline and Ryan play.
And let’s talk about that play, a believably antagonistic interaction that covers an barely-hidden attraction. The two bounce off of each other in ways I miss, romantic tension being the true center of a film and performers that know their game and play it well. Stephen King once said, when speaking of rock’n’roll, that “all that shit starts in E.” He discussed that no matter how a song goes, it all starts on the same note or in the same key. Rom-coms are very much the same, traditionally antagonistic and intense while building to a climax. They’re not unlike the give and take of sex, physical and sweaty with underlying tension until the moment happens and you relax into a happy afterglow. These types of films have served that purpose as far back as Bringing Up Baby, and French Kiss works it into a new type of issue by bringing in a woman that is openly xenophobic that learns to get over he issues. If that’s not interesting enough for you to unpack then I don’t know what to tell you, but it fascinated me.
There’s also this wild bromance between Jean Reno and Kevin Kline. Films quite often ask viewers to accept that two people are friends despite it making no sense (we’ll get to You’ve Got Mail, don’t worry) but here it very much works. While one is a cop and the other a thief they make it work, centering on an event that allows Kevin Kline’s character to be sympathetic. He’s an asshole, but he’s a good person underneath all of that.
Can we talk about THAT for a minute? It’s highly toxic that many of these films posit that a woman needs to love a man only after breaking down his asshole exterior when he just…shouldn’t need to be one in the first place. Few leading men pull this off successfully, at least most that aren’t named Tom Hanks, but Kline manages to make it work here in a way that I never buy again. Frankly I buy his chemistry with Will Smith in Wild Wild West more than I buy his behavior in most films, but in French Kiss I’m sold on this dude. He’s less of a depressing asshole that I wish Meg Ryan had avoided and more of a guy that’s just having a bad few months. In a world where I avoided rom-coms because I found the behavior of the men off-putting it was a refreshingly gorgeous.
I can’t sell this to you as a perfect film. What I CAN do is sell it to you as a highly entertaining love-fest with two people that are electric together onscreen and should kiss with astounding regularity. It’s pretty damned fun to watch and I can’t recommend it enough. The catch? It’s not streaming anywhere, which I know is a death sentence for most films these days. You’re in luck, though, because I’ve got great news about Blu-Rays! Pick it up on eBay (because Amazon is evil and Bezos can get bent) and give it a whirl!