Even those who loved Daniel Auteuil’s performance as the gawky, dim-witted peasant son in Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring may not recognize him in the new French comedy Mama, There’s a Man in Your Bed. As Romuald, the addled CEO of a Parisian yogurt company, he’s the picture of sleek, yuppified presentability.
His thick, dark hair is long, and swept back rather dashingly. Below it, he has the tanned, self-satisfied fleshiness of a proper French bourgeois — he looks like a Gallic version of Tom Conti in one of his intellectual-masher roles. Yet deep down, the clodhopper remains. Even at his most handsome, Auteuil has the appearance of a frightened, staring bird. There’s nothing remotely threatening about him; that’s why he’s such a natural comic. You want to protect him, especially when he’s making a fool of himself.
Romuald is happily married (or so he thinks) and has two beautiful kids, a gorgeous home, a maid, and a cuddle-bunny secretary who’s also his mistress. Still, all is not well at the office. When he issues an order to up production, he unwittingly sets off a chain reaction of backbiting boardroom antics. On top of that, his wife is having an affair and his chief rival is trying to frame him for insider trading. What’s a poor CEO to do?
In Romuald’s case, an unlikely savior is waiting in the wings: Juliette (Firmine Richard), the stoic, broad-faced Caribbean cleaning woman who has been working the night shift at his office for the past 10 years. A worldly-wise prole, she sees and overhears all.
She helps him defeat his duplicitous cohorts, and when he discovers his wife’s infidelity, Juliette — who has five children from five marriages — agrees to put him up. This leads to many scenes of boldly inspired and original comedy, such as the one in which Juliette enters her bedroom (you’re not gonna believe this) and discovers Romuald and all five kids (no, just wait!) asleep in the same bed!!
Writer-director Coline Serreau has updated the standard light French farces of the ’70s and early ’80s to the era of corporate hanky-panky. Mama, There’s a Man in Your Bed is a more conventional comedy than her 3 Men and a Cradle (1985), whose success inspired the blockbuster American remake Three Men and a Baby. This new one feels as though it were scripted with the remake in mind (and, indeed, the American version is already scheduled for production). It’s a blueprint farce: machine-tooled and textureless, with nothing much going on except for the stray bits of whimsical buffoonery Auteuil is able to bring to his character.
Yet it has one element that may get to audiences. After resolving the interoffice high jinks, Serreau devotes the last part of the movie to the unlikely love affair between Romuald and Juliette. Ah, the beautiful asymmetry of it all: company president and lowly janitor, European white man and up- from-the-Third World black woman, sexist lech and healing earth mother.
As presented, the ”romance” is completely unmotivated, yet the very notion of this bizarrely mismatched couple is served up as some sort of liberating comic catharsis. The movie turns into a piece of self-congratulatory liberal kitsch, a French-pastry Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for the art-house crowd. Serreau’s comic talent is nothing special. She must have known that if you wait long enough, some very old tricks can look new again.