Ironic as it seems now, the golden age of foreign film was driven not just by ''art'' but by the temperamental glow of larger-than-life movie stars (Deneuve, Mastroianni, Mifune). The French actress Nathalie Baye, who came to prominence in the '70s, has always been a vivid and empathetic presence, yet in her slightly withdrawn, pretty-but-not-quite-ravishing way, she incarnates the transformation of the European star system from outsize glamour to lifesize quasi-anonymity. In Venus Beauty Institute, Baye plays a 40ish beauty salon attendant named Angele who sustains herself with flings, like a precocious college student. She asks nothing of the men she sleeps with, yet in her love-shy way, she's a bit of a pill: Her refusal to get involved is a means of punishing herself and her lovers.
At the pastel salon where Angele works, the kitschy harp glissando that's triggered each time the door swings open seems to be mocking her sadness. The other attendants are much younger, and the movie, a mournfully talky comedy of romantic vanity, could almost be Sex and the City as directed by Eric Rohmer. Angele finally meets a suitor she can't shake, a chivalrous stalker who is intellectually breathless in his declarations of love. Venus Beauty Institute is clever and smooth, yet, like Angele herself (or Nathalie Baye), the film is almost too placid for its own good. It made me long for a dash of that old Euro-stardom. B-