For those who go for things legendarily Gallic, the MFA French Film Festival is are offering a real treat — two new movies featuring the goddess Catherine Deneuve.
By Paul Dervis
The Museum of Fine Arts is in the middle of its annual French Film Festival (through July 26) and for those who go for things legendarily Gallic, they are offering a real treat — two new films featuring the goddess Catherine Deneuve! Nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award in 1992 for her role in Indochine, but best known for ’60s French classics such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Belle de Jour, this French beauty has never stopped performing, having now appeared in over 120 films.
The MFA is screening two of her most recent movies, and they do not disappoint.
3 Hearts (July 19), directed by Benoît Jacquot, delivers a plot line ripe with melodramatic potential; but thanks to his nimble direction and quality acting it never sinks into the emoting mire. The film infuses welcome tension into what could have been depressingly maudlin material.
Marc is a middle-aged tax inspector from Paris who works in the countryside. He is in a provincial town finishing up some paperwork and he misses the last train home. A sad, hapless suit, he chooses to spend the lonely hours in an empty bar.
Sylvie, an attractive thirty-something walks in for a pack of smokes. Marc follows her when she leaves and starts up a conversation on the deserted streets. Sylvia, a risk taker, is drawn to him and they spend the night in conversation. By the first train out in the morning, they have decided to reconnect in Paris, at the fountain in the Tuileries Gardens.
Well…she shows, but Marc has been held up with work and is running late. In an effort to get to her, he has a panic attack, or maybe a heart attack. Too bad — Sylvie had decided to leave her boyfriend for him, but instead she goes off to Minneapolis with her young man, who has a new job there…but she doesn’t forget Marc or her feelings for him.
Marc, on his part, goes back to Sylvie’s town to look for her. Instead, he meets Sophie, an antique shop owner in tax distress. They connect, and get married. Marc finds out during a Skype conversation that Sophie is Sylvia’s sister. Now would be a good time to tell his fiancée …but Marc, you see, is a coward. Sylvie only finds out for sure that Marc is marrying her sister at the wedding, and she goes back to the States heartbroken.
Fast forward several years. The sisters’ mother (Deneuve) is having a birthday and Sylvie, who has not been home since the wedding, is convinced to return…and now secrets are about to explode.
This is where I’m going to bash American filmmakers yet again. More often than not, they would turn this tale into either a Lifetime Channel tearjerker or a Farrelly Brothers juvenile comedy. Not here. Jacquot and writing partner Julien Boivent have crafted a cool narrative that blends suspense and rock hard pathos. The characters are allowed to wallow in sentimentality — never the viewers. And our three leads, Benoit Poelvoorde as Marc, Charlotte Gainsbourg as Sylvie, and Chiara Mastroianni as her sister, Sophie, all carve deep grooves into their characters. Deneuve, as the mother, conveys suspicion with a subtle look. She has always been a master of the revelatory expression.
The other Deneuve vehicle is In the Courtyard (July 26), written and directed by Pierre Salvadori. Deneuve here has a leading role.
Antoine is a musician famous enough to command performances at major venues in France. But he is burnt out. He can’t sleep, he can’t perform, and he can’t feel. So, he walks away from his career and looks for work. Trouble is, he’s not qualified for anything else. He gets a job as a janitor for a rundown Parisian apartment building run by Mathilde and her husband, Serge. Mathilde too, is suffering. Aging gracefully, but not well, she is wracked with fear and anxiety.
The two form a bond. But are they good for each other, or do they feed off their joint neuroses? A question that the film will slowly answer.
This is a building inhabited by lost souls, a collection that includes a former soccer star who has been relegated to stealing bicycles to feed his cocaine habit; an architect who howls in the night out his bedroom window, and a cult member who is crashing illegally in the basement.
And this psychological menagerie is too much for Serge, who fears his wife is disappearing down the rabbit hole of dementia. Mathilde is obsessed with the cracks in her apartment and becomes convinced that the building will topple over on top of her. She starts to stir up the other tenants about this danger and Serge has seen enough…it’s time to have her committed. All the while, she draws closer and closer to Antoine, and decides to move in with him. Antoine is unhappy with this, but he cannot say no to anybody.
The pair’s overpowering response to a mad and sad world, however, is kindness. One can see it in Antoine’s stillness, and most assuredly in Mathilde’s eyes…those eyes, they are eyes you fall in love with. And they desperately make you want to protect her.
Both Gustave Kervern and Deneuve, in the leads, bring a quiet and compelling intensity to their roles. They perform so well against each other that it is difficult to believe that they have never played opposite each other before. Their chemistry is remarkable, leading to performances that convey unbearable pain.
In the Courtyard is challenging because it is so melancholic. There are comic moments, quite a few in fact, but the overwhelming impression left by the film is sorrow, intimations of misery at the center of human existence.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.