Tepid Madame: Antic Cinderella story or dark tale of social class? Meh, either way

By Jim Slotek

Rating: C-plus

A working-class woman crashes a high-end dinner party, and we learn a lesson about class struggle. No, it’s not the one with Salma Hayek and John Lithgow and all the angry speeches.

This one is Madame, with Toni Collette, Harvey Keitel and Spanish actress Rossy de Palma. The awkward English-language debut of French director/writer Amanda Sthers, it’s a movie trapped between stereotypical French insouciance and seriousness that somehow eventually manages to at least find something to say.

 Rossy de Palma is a maid masquerading above her station, by order of mean boss Toni Collette

Rossy de Palma is a maid masquerading above her station, by order of mean boss Toni Collette

Collette is Anne, the hard-nosed trophy wife of Bob (Keitel) an older American millionaire - on paper maybe, since he’s pondering the sale of his prize Caravaggio painting to cover a shortfall. Non-francophones who’ve been living in France and raising kids for a decade, they’re hosting a big dinner party to help sell the painting and generally show off.

Their plans go off the rails with the appearance of Stephen (Tom Hughes), Bob’s snarky adult son from a previous marriage, a drinker and a creatively-blocked author (in that order).

There’s already no love lost between Stephen and Anne (he calls her “my dad’s concubine”), but his mere presence means the dinner party of 12 is now the unconscionable number of 13. Which means there must be another woman at the table, and Anne decides to dress up her plain-Jane maid Maria (Pedro Almodóvar veteran de Palma). Maria is panicky and resistant, but a couple of glasses of expensive wine sets her at ease.

Perversely, Stephen whispers a lie to Maria’s tablemate David (Michael Smiley), an Irish academic and designer, that Maria is secretly a member of Spanish royalty. Naturally David is smitten, and Anne is horrified to hear a tipsy Maria tell translated bawdy Spanish jokes about breasts and penises to the dinner guests.

So far, so antic. But co-writer Sthers doesn’t seem to know what to do with the rest of the story. It veers toward Cinderella territory when David courts Maria, his only ironic concern being that she might not consider him good enough for her. Then it concerns Anne, a psychiatry junkie who goes full neurotic over the idea of her low-class maid finding happiness when she can’t (she’s having an affair with a family friend in response to Bob’s cozy relationship with his French teacher – or maybe it’s the other way around).

Meanwhile, Stephen is busily turning the whole thing into a book that his publisher finds brilliant.

Madame could have been a lot of things: antic, caustic, satirical, heart-warming, blackly comic. It glances toward all of them but ultimately never chooses one (though the ending strikes a tone I wish the rest of the movie had).

And the dialogue is weak and witless, settling frequently, in a pinch, on stereotypical pronouncements on the differences between the Americans, French and English.

De Palma’s aching Maria is all that really lifts Madame to anything approaching watchable, a work-away domestic who supports her figure-skating daughter back in Spain and dares to dream for the first time of something better for herself. As for Collette, she may never have had a more unrewarding role. Despite the neurotic pathology added to the script, she never manages to come off as more than mean, right to the end. An actress of her calibre should never settle for only one dimension.

Madame. Directed and co-written by Amanda Sthers. Starring Toni Collette, Harvey Keitel and Rossy de Palma. Opens Friday, March 23 in Toronto, Vancouver and Saskatoon.