the original french title of Happenstance, Le Battement D'Ailes Du Papillon, or The Beating Of The Butterfly's Wings, refers to the idea that the fluttering of a butterfly's wings in one place may cause a cyclone half a world away. The actions of a single person, too, may bring about the equivalent human response. Tragedy and joy hinge on things beyond our control.
So it goes in Happenstance, which follows a group of of Parisians through a single day. They cross paths, some interacting in the most innocuous ways, while others wind up falling in and out of love.
Writer/director Laurent Firode trots out two dozen characters, chief among them Irène (Amélie's Audrey Tautou), a salesgirl who loses her job when she refuses to turn in a shoplifter, and Younès (played by Algerian singing sensation Faudel), a waiter in the Italian restaurant where Irène's roommate plans to meet her ex-boyfriend.
There's also Richard (Eric Savin), who lacks the guts either to tell his wife he's cheating on her or to tell his mistress that he wants to end their relationship; and a pickpocket (Saïd Serrari) who inadvertently helps him make up his mind.
The strategy of showing hidden events that affect the characters is very appealing because it lets the audience feel superior. We know the stolen coffee maker Irène leaves on the Metro platform is mistaken for a bomb, which thereby makes her roommate's ex-lover late for their rendezvous. This wisdom is comforting because in our own lives we're never aware of the big picture.
Problem is, almost all the events that throw people together here are negative. The characters are fired, get into accidents, are dumped, cheated on, robbed and harassed. Happenstance is billed as an ensemble comedy, but it feels more like a dirge. In one scene, Younès places a crushed cockroach in a woman's cup of coffee in hopes of changing his luck. There's a mean-spirited, depressing feeling at work in Happenstance that undermines its ultimate goal, which is to show us the wonder of life.
Compare it to Amélie (which features Tautou in a much bigger role). Amélie's writer/director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, also fills his film with coincidences and characters who inadvertently affect each other's lives.
Unlike Firode, though, Jeunet brings childlike glee and innocence to his daisy chain of events, and we leave the cinema feeling inspired by life's happy accidents rather than email@example.com
happenstance written and directed by Laurent Firode, produced by Anne-Dominique Toussaint and Pasqual Judelwicz, with Audrey Tautou, Faudel, Eric Savin, Eric Feldman, Irène Ismaïloff and Saïd Serrari. 90 minutes. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (March 15). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 84. Rating: NN