Shall We Kiss?, a deceptively airy romance, is a love story in love with stories, a work of art in love with art. Packed with rich orchestral music and classical paintings, it unfolds by folding in on itself: two strangers (Julie Gayet and Michaël Cohen), both in committed relationships, meet in Nantes and share an enchanted evening, but she won’t kiss him goodnight and goodbye — what he calls “a kiss of no consequence”. Instead, she tells him a story about two friends of hers (Virginie Ledoyen and writer-director Mouret) who kissed and lived to regret it, in order to prove that all kisses have consequences.
Each of these complementary narrative strands includes a number of digressions, stories within stories within stories, but all are propelled by Mouret’s warm, gentle and elegant exploration into tried and true themes: the natures of love, attraction and relationships. Conspicuously split into two halves — the rise and fall; the comedy and the tragedy, climaxing in hard-earned poignancy — Shall We Kiss? is subtly conscious of its own construction. “When the story’s over,” our narrator tells her companion, “we won’t meet again.” Just like us in the audience, sort of.
Though primarily a verbal film, Shall We Kiss? retains a rich visual palette, characterized by contrasts: static, softly lighted long takes are paired against graceful tracking shots; the flashbacks are bathed in off-whites, the present in sumptuous reds and golds. Mouret sustains a whimsical tone for much of the film, derived in part from his performers’ nervous charms. But mostly it’s courtesy the Tchaikovsky and Schubert on the soundtrack. The music, particularly the excerpts from “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake,” provides another contrast: a lush, effusive counterpoint to the reserved emotions on screen, such as those displayed during a Bujalskian foreplay session that’s punctilious, cerebral and clinical (“Can I touch the other breast?”).
Shall We Kiss? (transliterated as A Kiss Please) is a far cry from mumblecore, though; if anything, it boasts a vague commonality with Woody Allen’s New York upper-crust seriocomic romances. Mouret, for example, often fills the frames with oversized portraits and paintings, a la Stardust Memories. But it’s the director’s skill for setting moving pictures to music that most evokes Allen, rivaling his deft use of Gershwin in Manhattan, which provided a neurotic 70s New York with a romantic edge and a sense of historical continuity. Shall We Kiss? is a contemporary love story, but the classical arts that occupy every inch of its fringe hint that, as in Allen’s masterpiece, its affairs of the heart, and the trouble they cause, are timeless.