Echoes of Steel Magnolias ring faintly around this Yuletide tale of self-deception. But where in 1989, Herbert Ross went for grand emotions in the true Hollywood style, ten years on Tonie Marshall has produced a subtly melancholic study of vanity, fear and isolation.
Scarred by a past affair, Angele (Baye) regularly leaves the beauty salon where she works, in search of casual sex. It's her way of fighting off the realities of age and loneliness that her clients seek to combat with the various massages, lotions and heat treatments available from her callously prim boss, Nadine (Ogier). So, when romance does rear its head, in the form of stranger, Antoine (Le Bihan), she dismisses his protestations of love. But Antoine's devotion proves stronger than her determination.
Most Hollywood fortysomethings would sell their capped teeth for the role of Angele. Yet few could match the brittle belligerence of Baye, who seems to have never given a bad performance during her 25-year career. The entire mood of the action takes its tone from Angele's psychological state, which veers from disappointed to distrustful without ever making her seem an unsympathetic character. But this is also an ensemble piece, with an engagingly eccentric collection of clients seeking solace each time they pass through the front door (which tinkles on opening, to suggest entry into a pastel-lit land of make-up-believe). Angele's colleagues are also deftly drawn, with the crotchety Samantha (Mathilde Seigner) seemingly content in her promiscuity and the sweetly inept Marie (Audrey Tautou) slowly succumbing to the attentions of a dashing widower (Robert Hossein).
A mockingly fond portrait of modern Parisiennes, this is also disarmingly honest on the lengths women are prepared to go to keep faith with themselves. Consequently the ending - with its unnecessary moment of melodramatic madness - is disappointingly traditional after so much invention and intrigue.