Les Ames de Papier is a bitter-sweet romantic comedy by Belgian director Vincent Lannoo which is short on seduction and low on laughs despite the inclusion of veteran comic actor Pierre Richard. Richard has appeared in French comedy classics such as The Tall Blonde Man with the One Black Shoe and a number of films by Francis Veber including The Goat, The Toy and The Fugitives and his talent for quirky, slapstick comedy has made him a favourite with French audiences for over 40 years. But even his brand of comic genius fails to breathe life into this film.
Richard plays Victor, an aged, madcap neighbour to Paul (Stéphane Guillon) who is the film’s protagonist and romantic lead. Paul is a fifty-something writer who lost the desire to write after the death of his wife in an accident five years previously. He now makes a living composing eulogies and seems happy enough writing about the dead until he is approached by a young widow Emma (Julie Gayet). She wants him to write a letter for her 8-year-old son Adam who is having difficulty coping with the death of his father. Paul and Emma soon fall for each other until Paul is woken in the middle of the night by a loud knock on his door. Mysteriously Emma’s husband Nathan (Jonathan Zaccai) has returned from the dead and his sudden appearance throws the burgeoning relationship between Paul and Emma into chaos.
Despite a promising opening, set against the stunning backdrop of Paris at Christmas, Les Ames de Papier struggles to maintain its course and is soon heading into murky water. Lannoo introduces several sub plots which flap about on the periphery of the main story without any real direction. Bizarrely, Paul is to blame for Nathan’s ghostly reappearance and although he physically resembles Emma’s dead husband, he is also in part Paul’s dead wife. There is also Victor, the neighbour, a Jewish historian who spends his time looking through documents for signs of a brother he lost during the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. And then there is Nathan himself who appears as confused as the audience as to why he has been called back to earth.
Richard does his best to camp it up, but he is swimming upstream. Guillon is a strange choice for a romantic lead. He is best-known in France as a presenter of humorous news review programmes – a kind of Gallic Jon Stewart. But his acting credentials are solid, and despite the clunky plot line he has a hang-dog charm which is not without appeal. Ghosts coming back to haunt the living is a theme already successfully mined on several occasions for its comic potential. Jerry Zucker’s 1990 Ghost and Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply from the same year spring to mind. Both these films had a valid reason for bringing the dead back to life and worked by placing the emphasis on the relationship between the ghost and wife/girlfriend. Quite clearly the chemistry is more difficult to find when the focus shifts elsewhere.