WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
The Venus Beauty Institute is a nicely understated French film that focuses on the emotional and sexual lives of four Parisian beauty-salon employees. It's a heartfelt and emotionally true story, gilded with wry humor and some real, though quirky, heat—in short, a nice break from the loud, obnoxious, deeply shallow exercises that pass for women's films in America.
The film's central character is Angèle (Nathalie Baye), a woman who stands at a crossroads in her life, longing for both the vivacity of untethered youth and the comfort of a lasting relationship. Torn in the midst of her desires, she finds herself flustered by what life has to offer. She's content to work tirelessly for Nadine (Bulle Ogier), a fastidious busybody who lives to serve her beautiful-on-the-outside clientele. One day, while receiving the brush-off from a one-night stand, Angèle is overheard by a passionate young man named Antoine (Capitaine Conan), who becomes immediately obsessed with the strong, emotionally fiery Angèle, and even takes to loitering around the salon in hopes of an opportunity to profess his love. The arc of their on-again off-again relationship provides the thrust of the film. And Angèle's coworkers—the somewhat lost Samantha (Mathilde Seigner) and the young Marie (Audrey Tautou of Amelie, in her first film)—provide nuanced side stories that, in their own ways, enhance Angèle's internal struggles.
The Venus Beauty Institute makes subtle observations about the concept of beauty, presenting a protagonist who's approaching middle age and who doesn't take part in the superficial pampering of her workplace. Angèle, however, is an undoubtedly beautiful woman, mostly so because of the humanity she exudes, the conflicts and passions and humor that define her. Nathalie Baye infuses the role with ambiguity and verve, creating a vivid personality that will linger in your memory.
Against the progress of the very real relationship that Angèle is building with Antoine, director Claire Denis displays a parade of beauty-salon caricatures, all of whom act as counter-balance to the film's dramatic center. There is much humor and universal social commentary to be found in these characters' eccentricities.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Fox Lorber presents The Venus Beauty Institute in a disappointing non-anamorphic transfer of the film's 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Detail, especially into backgrounds, suffers because of the non-anamorphic encoding, and digital artifacting is abundant. Colors tend toward pink—perhaps intentionally so—and lack vibrancy. Blacks are not especially deep.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The DVD provides a French stereo track that seems centered at the screen. It's a completely non-dynamic track that merely delivers clear dialog. English subtitles are burned in.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
All you get are some filmographies and the film's original theatrical trailer.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
The Venus Beauty Institute is definitely worth a rental, if only because it is a shining example of how to make a film about women.