You could go a little crazy trying to describe — or categorize — Ilan Duran Cohen’s 2008 “The Joy of Singing (Le plaisir de chanter)” (available on most download platforms and on DVD from IFC Films).
The best thing to do is just sit back and enjoy the very entertaining mix of comedy, eroticism and thrills in Cohen’s tale of a group of wildly diverse people who get together at an operatic singing class in Paris.
It turns out that nearly everyone in the class is there because of Constance (Jeanne Balibar), the widow of a murdered German industrialist who left behind a key that is vital to the transport of bomb-grade uranium to a terrorist cell.
Cohen appears to be sending up many of the conventions of international espionage thrillers (in the vein of the Jason Bourne pictures) where we often don’t care that the plot is a mess because the movies deliver so many thrills.
In the case of “The Joy of Singing,” the characters keep getting hung up on their very dysfunctional romantic and sexual relationships to the point that they seem to lose track of the spy work they are supposed to be doing.
Cohen delivers sex scenes that go way beyond anything that would be allowed in a Hollywood film — if the Motion Picture Association of America had rated the movie it would be an automatic NC-17 — but most of the time the director uses sex as one of the film’s biggest sources of humor.
Much of “The Joy of Singing” centers on Muriel (Marina Fois), a 30ish undercover agent (presumably for the French government, although the movie doesn’t devote much time to the mechanics of the intelligence group).
Muriel has drifted into a sexual relationship with her younger partner, Philipe (Lorant Deutsch) — he still calls her “Boss,” however — that makes her seriously uptight about aging and her ticking biological clock.
Fois plays Muriel in a delicious deadpan style that makes the woman both believable as a spy and hilariously funny as a neurotic lover. After Philipe breaks off with her, Muriel takes up with another young lover from her singing class — Julien (Julien Baumgartner, above).
After having some kinky — but satisfying — sex with Julien, the spy gets two shocks. The young man turns out to be a prostitute who has given her one “date” as an introductory offer but expects her to pay for his services thereafter. And Julien is also part of the uranium smuggling group (he is used by his cell as a contemporary Mata Hari with both women and men).
The whole cast is wonderful in a story made up of nothing but tricky characters. Everyone has a secret identity or is in the dark about the true identity of their partners. And most of the major characters get hooked on the singing they are expected to do in the class. It’s a terrific movie.