Daniel Auteuil has one of the best faces an actor has ever been blessed with. It can express at the same time both the careless arrogance and insensitivity of wealth or power and an innocence and vulnerability that are almost child-like. That makes the part of Francois Coste in Patrice Leconte’s new film, My Best Friend (Mon Meilleur Ami), the role he was born to play. Francois is a gallery owner in Paris who has no friends. Actually, it’s worse than that. Someone once said about former Senator Phil Gramm that even his friends don’t like him. Well, that’s Francois’s predicament too. He has lots of friends, but they all hate him.
He doesn’t know this, however, until his business partner, Catherine (Julie Gayet) — a woman with whom he has worked closely for years without ever knowing that she lives with a lesbian partner — challenges him to name his best friend. If he can’t come up with one in ten days, the expensive Greek vase he has just bought with the company’s money against her advice will be hers. The vase acts as a symbol of friendship in the film. It was supposedly made by someone to commemorate the death of a friend so that he, the surviving friend, could fill it with his tears. The decorative frieze on the outside tells the story of the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus.
After trying a couple of the names in his address book and finding that they don’t want to be considered his friend at all, let alone his best friend, he decides to look up the man whom he thought of as his best friend in grade school but whom he hasn’t spoken to in decades. Surely, youthful friendships are the longest lasting? But when he finds him, living in a Paris suburb, Luc Lebinet (Philippe Du Janerand) brutally informs Francois that he wants nothing to do with him. “Luc, we were best friends,” Francois pleads. “You can’t have forgotten.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” says Luc. “We were worst enemies. I hated you. The whole class hated you. You were a smug little s*** then, and you’re a smug little s*** still.”
While searching fruitlessly for a friend anywhere in his life, he notices that Bruno Balanchine (Dany Boon), the cab-driver who is shuttling him around Paris, seems to make friends wherever he goes, and he asks him to teach him how to make friends. The most important thing, says Bruno, is to be sympathique, a French word to which the subtitler’s English translation, “sociable,” scarcely begins to do justice. I would have thought that the English word “sympathetic” has taken on a lot of the meaning of its French cognate precisely because we have no other word that means what it means. Anyway, you will probably have seen where this is going. Though Francois has only limited success in learning to be sympa, he and Bruno become friends. They go to a soccer game together and then home to dinner with Bruno’s charmingly sweet old parents (Jacques Mathou and Marie Pillet).
When the old couple learn that Francois is an antiques dealer, they ask him to have a look at Aunt Jacky’s furniture in the attic to see if it might be worth anything. Francois picks out a table and offers them 10,000 Euros on the spot. Later, when Bruno helps him wrestle the table up the stairs of his chic Parisien apartment, Francois reveals that it is really “early Woolworths” and quite worthless. Why then did he pay 10,000 Euros for it? asks Bruno.
“To make them happy,” says Francois.
“You pay to make people happy?” asks Bruno
Clearly Francois still has some way to go in learning how to make friends, as we also see in the appalling way he chooses to demonstrate to Catherine and others that he does have a best friend and so stake his claim to have won the bet. The twist comes as we gradually realize that Bruno, though he is very sympa, has no friends either. He has been betrayed by his own best friend, which makes his subsequent betrayal by Francois all the more wounding. Nervous, insecure and solitary in his ways, Bruno mirrors in his own life the part of Francois that he is trying to fix.
Whether or not their friendship can be patched up, whether or not either of them can learn to be a friend at all, are questions that ultimately hinge on the artificial device of Bruno’s appearance on the French version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and needing to call Francois as his “lifeline.” This is a gain in drama at the cost of a certain amount of realism, but the film is still an enjoyable and sometimes moving portrayal of friendship that is very well worth seeing.