Tokyo Fiancée (2014) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would be R for nudity, sexual content, and language
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Pauline Etienne, Taichi Inoue, Alice de Lencquesaing, Julie LeBretton, Tokio Yokoi, Hiromi Asai
Director: Stefan Liberski
Screenplay: Stefan Liberski (based on the novel by Amelie Nothomb)
Review published January 28, 2015
Amelie Nothomb's semi-autobiographical novel of 2007 provides the basis for this quirky comic romance flick from Belgium, which some may be tempted to compare to another Amelie, as in 'Amelie Poulain' from the 2001 film, with shades of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.
Pauline Etienne (The Nun, Lost Paradise) plays Amelie, born in Japan to Belgian parents who moved back to their native country when she was five years old. Amelie has grown up a Japanophile, and how that she is twenty years of age, she decides to move to Tokyo and rekindle her happy childhood memories -- she wants to be Japanese. Immediately earning money as a French tutor, she takes on a new pupil in rich-kid Rinri (Inoue, his debut), a young Japanese man of about her age who happens to be a Francophile. The two soon become friends, and, as the film's title would suggest, a whole lot more, but Amelie is plagued with doubts and fears about the situation, to the point where she can't help but cling to stagnation.
Whimsical comedies can often be a double-edged sword, as for every person that they carry with their cute and precious moments, there are others who will likely find it too twee, and therefore too grating in its approach to stomach. For as much love as Amelie, the movie, received at the time of its release, it is one I have yet to be able to sit through all of the way, for those very reasons, and its approach to filmmaking does tend to get on my nerves. There's a bit of this in Tokyo Fiancée, but unlike Amelie, most of its preciousness is attributed to its main character, Amelie, and the fantastical way she sees the world. The movie itself, while beautifully shot and presented, isn't a confection brimming with sweetness, partially because Amelie has an undercurrent herself of restlessness and discontent.
Though the film is shot to exemplify the exuberance of a girl in love, both with a culture and with a boy, Tokyo Fiancée benefits from an understated poignancy and sense of growing chagrin that sometimes one's lifelong candy-colored dreams of what life might be like in the Shangri-La society we've convinced ourselves exists really isn't exactly what we expect. Part of Amelie's frustration comes from the sense that no matter how much she does to assimilate into Japanese society, as a Westerner, she will never, not fully, be accepted 100% as Japanese, partially because she is picking and choosing which customs she agrees with (Rinri's mother suggests that true Japanese women would always wear stockings, even in hot weather, as Amelie goes barelegged). Meanwhile, some of the Japanese characters, who are themselves fixated on French society and culture, envision her in the same way (though she isn't from France), and it holds up a mirror to reflect to suggest that perhaps she and Rinri merely want each other because each of them wants to be part of the other's society, and rather than for who they truly are inside.
Liberski's film, while altogether fine from a directorial point of view, seems to have a harder time in the storytelling elements. A prolonged scene in which Amelie travels to rural Japan alone in order to gain perspective would have more resonance had the rationale behind it been built up with more clarity, and also more of a reason for the character shift after the experience. A sequence in which the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent Fukishima disaster (not in the book, which was set in 1990) has her depart for a spell seems equally beguiling. Pieces of the puzzle also appear to be missing as to why the relationship between Amelie and Rinri begins to eventually have some troubles, and while the movie ends in as beautiful and whimsical a fashion as when it began, how it gets there feels like there are several dots still left unconnected in the effort to draw up a complete picture.
Narrative issues aside, this is a film that builds itself well on characters and smaller moments, and while the big picture may be hazy, it's still beautiful to view the tale as if looking through a box of charming old photographs. Tokyo Fiancée lives up to its name by being not just about a young woman who is a fiancée in Tokyo, but about one that wants to become one with Tokyo itself, hoping be accepted and cherished. It's also a bit of a coming-of-age story, as Amelie matures out of her naive, childlike way of looking at the world she has built up in her mind - reality tainting fantasy - and begins to see it for what it truly is, warts and all.
©2015 Vince Leo