The Handmaid’s Fail

Madame’s script wastes its stars but De Palma sparkles

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Madame
Opens March 23
Broadway Theatre
2 out of 5

Every actor in the strange ensemble comedy Madame is someone who deserves to hit the screen more often: the reliable Toni Collette, the (as of late) little-seen Harvey Keitel, Almodóvar mainstay Rossy De Palma and Brit character actor Michael Smiley (Kill List). They’re all a treat to watch but are poorly served by a movie with considerable identity issues: is it a comedy of manners? Slapstick? Drama?

Madame is set in Paris for no discernible reason beyond the scenery. Bob and Anne (Keitel and Collette) are an American couple enduring unspoken crises: Bob is short of cash and forced to sell his beloved Caravaggio (oh, boo-hoo). Anne, his aging trophy wife, is sexually frustrated and considering an affair. They’re preparing a lavish dinner that may solve their problems. Then they realize there are 13 seats at the table — a harbinger of bad luck.

To fix this, Anne dresses the maid, María (De Palma), in haute couture to pass her off a Spanish socialite. As the classic rom-com trope goes, María’s humble, down-to-earth charm captivates the guests, particularly a British art broker (Smiley) who’s oblivious to the ruse.

Even though the set-up is ancient, De Palma makes it work. She’s a delight as the reluctant accomplice, whose religion-based misgivings fall by the wayside one by one. Unfortunately, Madame is not her movie: Keitel and Collette have storylines that never take off. The Anne character could have been a delightful villain. Instead we have to put up with her run-of-the-mill midlife crisis.

Also, one shouldn’t cast the star of Bad Lieutenant as the straight man in anything. Kind of a waste.

The film is intermittently amusing and sticks the landing with a beauty of a gut punch. The moral of the story: when in doubt, go with Rossy.