At this point, it can hardly be serendipity that the twist-of-fate romantic comedy, with its deviously entangled chains of coincidence, has mutated into a form all its own. When, exactly, did this happen and why? Unless I’m forgetting something, the cycle kicked off in 1998 with ”Next Stop Wonderland” and ”Sliding Doors,” then continued with ”Run Lola Run” (the metaphysical Pop-art brainteaser of the genre), and on through ”Serendipity.” Now, in the minor but winning French ensemble movie Happenstance, events as tiny and as seemingly random as a shoplifted coffeemaker or a casually tossed macaroon fall into flamboyant patterns of interconnection, unseen by everyone but the audience, that have the power to lead a pair of potential lovers to sit down at the exact same moment on back-to-back hospital benches. In ”Happenstance,” fortune doesn’t just smile — it schemes and tricks and zigzags, forming an urban road map of fate’s detours.
The seductive charm of these films, even when they’re as gimmicky as this one, is that they only pretend to be parables of predestination. Their real subject is the way that people, by making independent choices and actions, forge and fulfill the possibilities that chance has been playful enough to dangle in front of them. They’re mystical love stories for a secular age.
It’s hardly serendipity that ”Happenstance” is being released in the U.S. at the exact same moment as ”Amélie,” the confectionary French blockbuster whose star, Audrey Tautou, is part of the ensemble here. Tautou has big, brown saucer eyes so dark they look nearly black, as well as a magnificent upper lip that curls outward like a daffodil petal; when she smiles, she suggests a winsome Gallic Julia Roberts merged with Juliette Binoche. In ”Amélie,” a movie where every shot is composed like an album cover, Tautou is an image as much as she is a character, but you get to glimpse more of her inner spirit in ”Happenstance,” where she plays a melancholy loner who loses her job at an appliance store. Drifting through Paris, she’s lovely in her sadness, yet never so adorable as to seem beyond a conventional woman’s heartbreak.
The other characters in ”Happenstance” include a very sweet pathological liar (Eric Feldman) and a talky espresso-bar misanthrope (Franck Bussi) who, in his egomaniacal eloquence, manages the not inconsiderable feat of out-Depardieuing Depardieu. Come to think of it, there’s one of these grizzled armchair philosophers in ”Amélie,” too. It could be serendipity, but it’s probably just the fate of French movies.