Manual of Love

Year: 2006
Director: Giovanni Veronesi
If you've ever been standing on a crowded street corner or sitting in a shopping centre watching people go by, there's probably been an instant where you've seen a gesture by someone, watched an expression on their face, heard a snatched word of their conversation, and wondered for a second what their life was like.

That's what Manual of Love does. It transports us through four stories with absolutely no common thread except for the protagonists and the fleeting minutes they spend in each other's lives, where the film passes us on to the next story. The link between each tale is as tenuous as the exchanges with strangers we have every day, and Manual of Love leaves us with the charming message that everyone's the same as us, they're not just faces in the crowd, and they have big, happy, angry, sad and joyous secrets behind their eyes like we do.

But forget everything you know about lives colliding from Hollywood thrillers. There are no plane crashes, hit-and-runs or heart transplants. We leave each star-crossed couple and move on to the next at a holiday resort theatre performance and a minor traffic infringement with all the subtlety of chaos theory.

The title comes from the series of audiobook publications one of the characters has a job recording the readings for. Her brother is suddenly smitten with a woman he comes across by chance when he thinks his luck can't get any worse. They spy a couple across a crowded dance floor later, whose relationship we learn is crumbling. After the horrors of childbirth on video and a drunken night kissing another man, the wife tries to reconcile while he tries to save them getting towed for double parking.

The lady traffic cop who lets him off the hook goes home to her happily married life only to discover her husband's been cheating on her. She kicks him out and proceeds to take revenge on every man who ever lived, turning into a traffic Nazi. We zero in on the argument between her and one of her victims, whom we join later to learn has been going through a horrific time since his wife left him.

The four books of the Manual of Love (falling in love, the crisis, the betrayal and abandonment) all wear their hearts on their sleeve. Some of it's slapstick, some of it's a longing sigh under the moonlight, some of it's heartbreaking. There's a smattering of dialogue directed at the camera, one of the tricks it uses for a laugh without ever being either nasty or syrupy.

By the time it's all played out, we'll have come full circle, with the links between stories popping up very subtly from time to time - not enough so you can feel the director winking at you, just enough to say 'we're all in this love thing together and none of us are finding it any easier'.

The native Roman setting achieves two things. First, as unknowns in most of the western world, the actors are free to tell the story and surprise us, not bring a career of baggage with them and make us expect them to behave a certain way.

Secondly, the French and Italians seem to have the market on romance cornered simply through virtue of who they are. The rest of the world has scooters, gelato and little al fresco coffee shops too, but Rome and Paris are just the cities to fall in love like no others ever will be.

Like a co-production between Woody Allen, William Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino, Manual of Love pokes fun at, cries at and smiles at the vagaries of the human heart, stitching the stories together with all the random lightness of a butterfly on the wind. It's a breezy film with little pretension but lots of charm.

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