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French comedy displays an expert cast at work ★★★

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

4:25 PM EDT, August 29, 2013

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Wildly different types of people get together all the time in real life, which makes the phoniness of most romantic comedies all the more frustrating. In the movies it's seldom a matter of an audience believing in realistic-seeming behavior or situations cooked up by the screenwriters and the director. More often, rom-coms require believing just enough of the lie, so that you can give in and let the actors take your mind off the improbabilities. How do they do it? They do it with everything that cannot be taught in drama school: charm, wit, some honest emotion underneath the comedy.

"My Worst Nightmare," from co-writer and director Anne Fontaine, is a fine example.

In this bourgeois/proletariat odd coupling, now at the Siskel Film Center, Isabelle Huppert glides through the role of a steely Paris gallery owner in a long-term but calcifying domestic arrangement with a book publisher, portrayed by Andre Dussollier. Their teenage son, more into video-gaming than his studies and completely average in most respects, makes friends with a dazzlingly bright son of a hard-drinking contractor. The contractor's played by Benoit Poelvoorde, the movie's sparkplug.

The contractor and the publisher become pals; soon, the former is working for the latter, redoing the couple's enviable apartment. The Huppert character goes into a perma-snit regarding his boorish behavior, his women, his racist comments. You see where "My Worst Nightmare" is going in terms of getting these polar opposites into bed together. Yet the tonalities are fresh and surprising. As Dussollier's character loses himself in a new relationship with a social worker (Virginie Efira), Huppert's rigorous aesthete — described by another character as "Cruella disguised as Mary Poppins" — finds herself attracted to the ex-con who's proud of his genius-level son but unsure of how to go about being a father.

As with her recent, elegant "Girl From Monaco," Fontaine's technique behind the camera here is simple, neat and self-effacing, and her actors go to town without forcing the situations. If there's a gag involving Huppert opening her bathroom door, only to find Poelvoorde on the toilet, it's a beat or two quicker than the typical American equivalent. If Fontaine adds a bit of punctuation, as when Poelvoorde swipes a five-euro bill off a cafe table as he leaves, it's done lightly and well.

Huppert is not, by nature, a fountain of comedy. What she brings to "My Worst Nightmare" is a close cousin to the gravity and presence Catherine Deneuve has delivered in her recent, bantamweight comic confections. Huppert doesn't become a different actress in "My Worst Nightmare," she simply goes about her job and plays up the hauteur a tiny bit and before you know it, you believe the movie and its easygoing observations about class, money and attractive opposites. Huppert, Poelvoorde and Dussullier are experts all.

mjphillips@tribune.com

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1:43; in French with English subtitles

Plays: Friday-Sunday at the Siskel Film Center.