The French have laid particular claim to the stage and screen farce as few other cultures have. Chalk it up as much to a history laden with royal propriety as the emergence of a sexually progressive culture. Whatever the reason, anyone who enjoyed The Birdcage, Down And Out In Beverly Hills, 3 Men And A Baby, or even (somehow) this year’s The Big Wedding only did so because the French got there first.
Following in those films’ featherweight footsteps is Charles Nemes’ Hôtel Normandy, an amiable wisp centered around Alice (Héléna Noguerra), a banker and widow whose two friends—one overly cavalier (Anne Girouard), the other naïvely romantic (Frédérique Bel)—set her up for a three-day stay at the Hôtel Normandy in Le Havre. Furthermore, the former has blackmailed David (Ben), an overextended client of the bank, into passing himself off as a chance paramour, in an effort to eliminate Alice’s five-year romantic block. However, a bedridden David sends his dweeby brother Yvan (Ary Abittan) to serve as his proxy, with both unaware that two other men—gallery owner Benoît (Jean-Marie Lamour) and art buyer Jacques (Eric Elmosnino)—have set their sights on the same unwitting tourist.
All manner of madcap misunderstandings ensue, with Alice’s friends manipulating matters from afar until spurred into action by the surplus of well-meaning men. Alice initially mistakes Jacques for the designated ringer; in turn, Benoît mistakes Alice for an escort (and yet is flattered all the same). More than one character gets a makeover montage, there are drinks and dancing and missing paintings, and the whole roundelay ends with a very public display of affection. Jean-Paul Bathany and Stéphane Ben Lahcene’s screenplay briskly sets up its game of musical chairs, but then lets its characters wander about the seaside town at a reliably mild velocity. (One touch of innuendo has Alice lowering herself beneath the dashboard to see “what the driver has under his hood.” Then, like clockwork, the hood pops open, and she actually gets out to check.)
Nemes incorporates some ironic juxtaposition between conversation and action, but he primarily ensures that the tone shifts breezily from wish-fulfillment travelogue to comedy of errors to improbable buddy romp. Looking like a Gallic ringer for Diane Lane, Noguerra handles Alice’s freewheeling midlife crisis in a way that sets the tone for the ensemble to match, though Girouard, Bel, and Abittan come off as distinctly broader in their share of the antics. Such perpetually inconsequential work from both sides of the camera could easily be sold short, as each scene is more likely to earn grins and giggles than full-on belly laughs. However, in keeping with many an earlier French trifle (see also: 2010’s Heartbreaker, half of Audrey Tautou’s filmography), Hôtel Normandy does exactly what it says on the tin, and at 84 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome.