Anne (Toni Collete) and Bob (Harvey Keitel) are throwing a dinner party at their fancy Parisian home. The sudden arrival of Bob’s son (Tom Hughes) leaves Anne in a quandary: there are now thirteen guests for dinner – an uneven, and unlucky number. Reluctantly, she invites her maid Maria (Rossy de Palma) to join the table, instructing her to talk as little as possible and not reveal who she really is. When another guest, wealthy art appraiser David (Michael Smiley), takes a shine to Maria, Anne’s class-based world is turned upside down.
Most famous for her appearances in many Pedro Almodóvar movies, it’s rare to see Rossy de Palma in such a prominent role in an English-language production. She is the best thing about Madame by a country mile. Often compared to a real life Picasso painting, de Palma makes an arresting figure on screen, her unconventional beauty cutting through the blandly opulent surroundings like a hot knife through butter. She’s warm and charming, a real oasis in the soullessness that surrounds her.
Aside from de Palma, Madame is an empty, tedious dud. Bewilderingly advertised as a comedy, Amanda Sthers’ film (based on her own novel) is deeply unfunny; it’s hard to recall one line in the whole venture that would raise a smile from the most easily amused viewer. Some of the attempts at wit are just baffling. After struggling to pedal his bike through the streets of Paris, Bob grumbles: ‘Who designed this bike, Hitler?’. Setting aside the offensive nature of the comment, what does that even mean? The only explanation I can muster is that because Sthers is French, any humour that was here got lost in translation. Or perhaps Madame was never funny in the first place.There’s an oddly misogynistic flavour to much of this dialogue too. After Maria knocks a drink on David and then tries to mop it up, he jokes: ‘It’s genetic, when a woman sees a stain, she must come and rub’. This occurs soon after Anne has told Maria, who doesn’t want to lie about her identity: ‘All women can lie, it’s all about smiling’. Coupled with the unchecked jealousy Anne feels for every woman in this movie, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
After her barn-storming success in the excellent Hereditary, it seems strange that Toni Collette would turn up in a film as rotten as Madame, especially to play such a two-dimensional, generic character. It’s a credit to Collette’s acting that she almost manages to wrest some humanity out of Anne, an unhappy person who takes her misery out on those she perceives to be ‘below’ her. But Sthers’ screenplay offers her no help. For the most part, all Collette can do is add admirable zest to her depiction of the sad, venal woman. As for Harvey Keitel, what he’s doing in Madame is anyone’s guess.
Except an endearing performance from Rossy de Palma, Madame is dull and profoundly unfunny; an unpleasant film about how unpleasant the uber-wealthy can be. And don’t we have enough of those?
Madame is released on DVD and Digital Download from 17 September 2018