Gallic humor runs amok in French director Ilan Duran Cohen’s 2008 comedy, “The Joy of Singing” (“Le Plaisir de Chanter”). The Martha’s Vineyard Film Society screens the film on Friday, May 28, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, at its summer starting time of 8 pm. It is not suitable for children.
The viewer’s first challenge to understanding “The Joy of Singing” comes in keeping straight a dizzying cast of characters who change sex partners as if they were playing a naked version of musical chairs. First we meet Joseph (Guillaume Quatravaux), singing opera in the Métro as he hands out flyers for his mother’s singing classes.
Is Joseph a central character? Not really. But he appears in many scenes throughout the movie, and his exchange with a chunky, bearded man at the beginning sets its deadpan, absurdist tone. The scene cuts abruptly to a torture victim who dies before giving up the information his torturers seek. If none of these shenanigans seem to make sense, they’re not supposed to.
Muriel (Marina Fois) and Philippe (Lorant Deutsch) show up en route to the airport for a meeting. They’re spies on a mission to retrieve a USB flash drive with information about uranium stored on it. Muriel lusts after Philippe, who calls her “Boss” and protests he’s not interested in her sexual advances. When she’s not trying to seduce Philippe, Muriel worries about her biological clock and about becoming a mother. She obsessively visits her gynecologist.
Constance (Jeanne Balibar) gets her handbag stolen several times and turns out to be the key to retrieving the flash drive. Just to make things more confusing for the viewer, though, the subtitles identify her as a “widower.” She IS actually a widow, and her late husband is the source for the uranium information that numerous spies are scrambling to find.
Sooner or later, almost all the characters congregate at the singing classes run by Joseph’s mother Madame Eve (Evelyne Kirschenbaum). They include Anna (Caroline Ducey), Constance’s sister-in-law Noémie (Nathalie Richard), and Julien (Julien Baumgartner), a male hooker enlisted by another spy, Reza (Frédéric Karakosian), to recover the missing USB drive.
Along the way, everyone seems to strip down for sex with a different partner, sometimes of the same sex. Anna gets murdered, and her body is disposed of in a rug. Announcing, “I accept my corny side,” Constance decides she’d like to become a pop singer.
MacGuffins proliferate. For those not familiar with great spymaster Alfred Hitchcock’s terminology, MacGuffins are catchy yet irrelevant plot elements that drive the story. In addition to the USB drive, Geiger counters, cameras, handcuffs, and mysterious locks of hair pop up, as if Hitchcock himself had tossed them in as a cosmic joke on the audience.
The best way to enjoy “The Joy of Singing” is not to worry about whether it makes any sense. Instead, sit back and enjoy this zany romp.
“The Joy of Singing,” Friday, May 28, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for members. Extensive nudity, sex, and violence. Doors open at 7:30. For more information, go to mvfilmsociety.com.
Brooks Robards, who divides her time between Northampton and Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.