What comes to mind when you picture the likely protagonist of a film titled “Anaïs in Love?” If it’s not a flighty, free-spirited young Frenchwoman, cycling around Paris with flowers in her bike basket, completing a Masters literature thesis (long past deadline) on “17th-century descriptions of passion,” and wearing bright floral sundresses in all weathers, you’ve tried too hard to avoid the obvious — not something you could easily accuse Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s blithe, gossamer-light debut feature of doing in imagining said heroine. Is it too on the nose if she’s played by reliably winsome starlet Anaïs Demoustier? Don’t answer that: she is.
At first rosy blush, then, “Anaïs in Love” appears to gently parody an idealized screen vision of Gallic femininity (a manic pixie dream fille of sorts) that has endured in various incarnations from the French New Wave to “Amelie” and beyond. To what end is harder to determine, not least since Bourgeois-Tacquet’s film seems at least as besotted with Anaïs as her diverse assortment of past lovers are with her, even as her narcissistic pursuit of pleasure — a trajectory somehow both aimless and ruthlessly single-minded — tests the viewer’s affections. Some might wonder what “Anaïs in Love” really has to say for itself; the film, perhaps, objects to the idea of young women like its cheerfully confused heroine having to explain themselves at all. Either way, this zephyr-blown dandelion of a movie isn’t going to break a sweat to get its message across.
We meet Anaïs in a typical state of insouciant chaos: scrambling late to an appointment with her bemused landlady, apologizing for her tardiness by explaining she had to stop off at the florist before closing time. Bien sûr! She’s three months behind on rent, but talks her way out of eviction with empty promises and airy chatter, all while changing her outfit to attend a party that evening — for which she’s already running late. “That’s so Anaïs,” the film encourages us to think, having spent less than ten minutes in her company. En route to the party, she charms older publishing bigwig Daniel (Denis Podalydès) by asking him to share an elevator with her and her bicycle: She’s just too neurotic to take one alone. Every meeting with Anaïs, it soon becomes clear, is a meet-cute.
So far, so ooh la la. But we soon detect darker currents in Anaïs’ carefree demeanor, even if she scarcely admits to them. A semi-romantic rendezvous with her estranged husband Raoul (Christophe Montenez) is stopped in its tracks when she casually mentions, in one breath, that she’s pregnant with their child and aborting it next week — her tone as perky as if she were planning a haircut. “You don’t realize what human interaction is,” he says despairingly. “You live your life, and see me when you have time.” He’s not wrong: We never see him again. Instead, she tumbles straight into a plainly doomed dalliance with Daniel, who has no intention of disrupting his marriage to a successful author Emilie (a breathy, sad-eyed Valerie Bruni Tedeschi, giving the film’s most affecting performance) for Anaïs’ benefit.
Cockblocked by this unknown woman, Anaïs ends the affair and resolves to get acquainted with Emilie instead. Having convinced herself, after reading Emilie’s collected works, that they are true kindred spirits, Anaïs abandons all other responsibilities — including her job and her doting, cancer-stricken mother (Anne Canovas) — to stalk the older woman at an elite literary convention in the countryside, gradually ingratiating herself with a zeal that brings to mind an adorable, espadrille-wearing Alex Forrest. Is she borderline psychotic or simply flailing for human connection? Bourgeois-Tacquet resists making the call. The film’s sunny, wistful tone never wavers, the sweet strings of Nicola Piovani’s score carry on apace, while Noé Bach’s warm, hazy-afternoon lensing consistently casts our heroine’s exploits, quite literally, in the best possible light.
There’s something to be said for a millennial love story driven by a young woman determined to have everything her own way, at any cost to others’ feelings. Similarly selfish male romantics have been cheered on by any number of previous films. But while the film is loath to pass judgment on its title character, neither does it really get under her apricot-tanned skin. Her whims remain elusive and unpredictable to us from first scene to last, in a way two comparable recent studies of frustrated, frustrating young women, “The Worst Person in the World” and “Licorice Pizza,” sought to remedy. Those films were made by men, conscientiously aiming to demonstrate a feminine understanding; for better or worse, Bourgeois-Tacquet is content to leave her character wholly unresolved, and rewarded for it.