François, sitting at a table in a Parisian café, watches a beautiful girl sitting at another. As she hesitates over the menu, he wonders what she will order. He decides he will talk to her – if she orders apricot juice; not as exotic as guava or papaya, and not as commonplace as orange or apple. Nathalie (Audrey Tautou), hesitating over the menu, settles on a coffee, and then promptly switches her coffee order to juice. After a little more hesitation, she decides what kind. It will be apricot juice.
Some years later, when her colleague, Markus (François Damiens) visits her office and she absentmindedly walks over to him, engaging his lips in an impromptu kiss, Nathalie shows no sign of hesitation.
In isolation, these vignettes read as neatly pre-packaged meet-cutes – the first infinitely cuter, on paper; and the second, more provocative, daring on film – ready to be thrown into any run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. And Delicacy, save a makeover montage, ticks all the rom-com boxes: there is the whirlwind romance with the perfect guy; a decent, semi-public proposal that warrants a yes; and an unrealistically flawless (albeit brief) marriage. That the film is also set in Paris, of all universally acknowledged love capitals, and stars, of all petite and pretty French actresses, the delightful Audrey Tautou as la delicatesse, Nathalie is just the icing on the wedding cake. Oh yeah, and somewhere outside of her perfect love life, Nathalie has a career we don’t know much about – except that she must be super busy as she has a lot of folders everywhere in her office and rocks a fierce work wardrobe.
But these transactions – the apricot juice and the colleague kiss – have more to them than the phoney of meet-cutes. Rooted in a requisite serendipity, these exchanges come to define Nathalie’s life for better or worse thereafter, and, in terms of the film, divide it into two distinct parts; two Nathalies, as it were. After the apricot juice, the first Nathalie and François wind up getting married, but their winning love story comes to a heart-crushing halt when François dies unexpectedly. At her most delicate, Nathalie is left at a loose end, holed up in their apartment – now, just her apartment – as a young widow and recluse. After just a glimpse of her grief, which is suggested more than it is shown, time plummets forward and we are given a seemingly chirpier, career-confident Nathalie a few years later. It is this Nathalie that surprises herself, kissing Markus in her office; as her vulture of a boss notices, death becomes her.
Delicacy differs from other romantic comedies in that it doesn’t focus solely on The One, but rather on The One After. It celebrates the possibility of life after death, but not in the way of a French P.S. I Love You – for starters, there are no corny letters. Rather, Delicacy is frank and even powerful in its ultimate choice; namely, Nathalie’s choice: the life of not one but two loves, over the loss of the love of her life. In fact, Nathalie is somewhat sold short in the movie. She is not, as she appears, la delicatesse but tougher, defiant. When her friend takes her out clubbing in an attempt to cheer her up, Nathalie dances alone in a crowd of other bodies, jerking her head and arms vehemently, viciously even, to the sluiced beat of bad Europop. She is surrounded but quite alone, shut-eyed, moving on around other people. Meanwhile, Nathalie’s friend watches her from the bar, tears gathering in her eyes. But Nathalie keeps dancing, taken somewhere by the music, some place else – with François, perhaps. Or maybe, she’s with Markus.
Markus is conveniently made way for in Delicacy as Nathalie’s chief suitor, insofar as we see more of him than we do François. The latter features substantially, albeit fleetingly, in the beginning of the film, though remains ever present in Nathalie’s consciousness, and therefore our’s, throughout. We do not learn much about François and as a result, his inherent one-dimensionality push us to accept Markus all the more willingly as a more developed character with a sense of humour and, fundamentally, a life outside of that he shares with Nathalie. When François dies, though we sympathise with Nathalie, we cannot relate to her as François is far too singular a character: the stock romantic opposite, lacking any real identity; he is more a half of them as a couple, than he is himself. It’s no surprise then that we attach ourselves to Markus almost without thinking, as Nathalie does when she kisses him in her office, accepting him in her own way.
Though much his own person, Markus suits Nathalie to a tee. Physically, he is the perfect antidote to Nathalie’s petite; a gruff, friendly giant who is really, we learn, the delicate one. Markus is the one falling over himself after she kisses him, who bumps into doors and has to pinch himself when he’s with Nathalie to remind himself of the wonderful fact. As Markus says on one of their dates, peering up at the shimmering Eiffel Tower and at Nathalie, beneath its light, a similarly dazzling beauty, ‘I think I’m going to fall in love.’ Though I too developed a couple crush on Nathalie and Markus, willing them together no matter what, as much as I hate to admit it (the romantic in me despairs), there is something unconvincing about their pairing. The film’s romantic comedy tendencies – François’ limited screen time and lack of character; the glossing over of Nathalie’s grief; and the time jump thereafter – to which Delicacy ultimately subscribes, make it incredibly easy for them to be together. In bypassing the mess of mourning, death is sugarcoated, dumbed down for us, and our ability to cope with death – along with Nathalie’s – severely underestimated. We don’t, for instance, learn the actual nature of François’ death. If only Delicacy was more curt and less careful, and would allow itself to fester for longer in its own darkness, in order to shine, like Nathalie, only brighter when pulled out of its doom. Alas, the film remains true to its frankly cupcake title and, submitting itself to rom-com, cannot escape its own preening delicacy.
Shortly after the death of her husband, Nathalie is frustrated by the way she is treated, as though a breakable thing, by the people around her. By not daring to deal with the death of François properly, the film is treated by its makers much like Nathalie by her friends and colleagues. Delicacy doesn’t quite serve Nathalie, or itself, due justice. Though it does much to dispel the soulmate myth and advocates life after death, in its flimsy treatment of death and mourning, Delicacy misses an opportunity to become raw, really thought provoking cinema. Where other film grapples with such themes more directly and successfully, as in Little White Lies, for example, in which the death of a valued friend yields deeper and more complex turmoil in the relationships of a friendship group, Delicacy falls flat. In actuality, Nathalie and Markus’ relationship seems little affected by Francois’ death and the trauma surrounding it. Or maybe it’s better not to dwell on the past and allow it to interfere with the present; perhaps this is the message, if there is one, of Delicacy. Either way – for there are myriad ways of coping with death, in life and on film – there is no real closure for Nathalie, or for us, in the end; only intangible acceptance and hope.