"Merci Docteur Rey" offers an extremely slender -- yet a most beguiling -- excuse for showcasing a clutch of celebrated international actresses of a certain age. The plot is unabashedly implausible, but it expresses first-time writer-director Andrew Litvack's giddy, amused sense of life's absurdities. An elegant Merchant Ivory production, it is too slight and perhaps too precious. But it will be a witty pleasure for admirers of its grande dames: Dianne Wiest, Jane Birkin and Bulle Ogier, with an appearance by Vanessa Redgrave as herself.
The film is set in motion by Stanislas Merhar's Thomas, a slim, gay, 23-year-old Parisian "looking for same" on the Internet. He is the son of Elisabeth Beaumont (Wiest), an American opera star who has come to Paris to appear in a production of "Turandot" directed by her old friend Claude (Ogier), who is well-experienced in the ways of divas. Thomas' Internet adventures lead to about as bizarre an encounter as is imaginable with his father (Simon Callow), who supposedly had died in a car accident before his son was born.
It's no wonder Thomas seeks out the services of Dr. Rey, a psychiatrist. Alas, Rey's longtime patient Penelope (Birkin), a highly unstable actress of waiflike appeal and an understanding heart, has been pouring out her troubles to the decidedly nondirective therapist only to discover Rey, who wears dark glasses, must have died early on in their session. In a desperate state, Penelope passes herself off as Rey to Thomas, the next patient, and is actually helpful. When, inevitably, he discovers the ruse, he in turn calms Penelope by assuring her that she is not responsible for the death of Rey, who had a heart condition. It is the beginning of a friendship between two lonely people.
The heart of the film is Penelope's gradual recovery, thanks to Thomas' companionship. Birkin suggests that the flighty, birdlike Penelope is a gifted actress and a wonderfully candid woman, for all her eccentricities. Her unwillingness to work with actors "who make me puke" has driven her from the stage, and she supports herself by dubbing foreign films into French. (She has dubbed Vanessa Redgrave for so long she is in danger of believing she is Redgrave.) When Thomas takes Penelope to meet his mother in her dressing room, her vulnerability in the face of the formidable Elisabeth is underlined by her dress, which has the same print as the wall fabric; the effect upon Penelope is summed up in the old phrase "faded into the woodwork."
Elisabeth turns out to be as comical as she is monstrous. Swathed in caftans and scarves, she is outrageous but self-knowing, capable of realizing that her son is "the only thing that makes me human." Wiest is as amusing as she was as a Tallulah Bankhead-like star in Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway" -- but a lot more malevolent. Ex-Mrs. Mick Jagger Jerry Hall and Vernon Dobtcheff play a worldly couple who visit Elisabeth in her dressing room after opening night. Redgrave also drops in.
Litvack, who has been an assistant director to both James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, takes a while to discover the proper rhythm for his comedy. But he's clearly skilled with actors, and as "Merci Docteur Rey" draws to a close he manages to pull together all the cockamamie strands of his plot for a suitably delirious finish.
'Merci Docteur Rey'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult themes, situations, language
Dianne Wiest...Elisabeth Beaumont
Stanislas Merhar...Thomas Beaumont
Bulle Ogier...Claude Sabrie
A here!/Regent Releasing presentation of a Merchant Ivory production in association with Eat Your Soup productions. Writer-director Andrew Litvack. Producers Rahila Bootwala, Nathalie Gastaldo. Cinematographer Laurent Machuel. Editor Giles Gardner. Music Geoffrey Alexander. Costumes Pierre-Yves Gayraud. Production designer Jacques Bufnoir. In English and French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
Exclusively at the Regent Showcase, 614 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 934-2944; and the Playhouse 7, 673 Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.