By Dan Lalande
Many years ago, I had the privilege of co-writing a stage play with a noted Franco-Ontarian playwright, my first experience catering to a French audience. Somewhere in the second act, the plot not only thickened, it congealed to a deep soup. After hemming and hawing, I received an education in ethnological drama I have never forgotten. Quoth my experienced collaborator: “You have to give the French their melodrama!”
If I served that sector but a sample size, actress cum film director Nicole Garcia, with her From the Land of the Moon, has opened a five-star restaurant.
This French production, produced in 2016 and currently playing the Canadian art house circuit, puts the ever-willing Marion Cotillard through a veritable catalogue of emotional exaggeration: mental health issues, sexual anxiety, kidney stones, a miscarriage, and, that untoppable French affliction, romantic longing. Not since Truffaut’s Adèle H., in fact, has a French filmmaker chronicled such incurable mal de coeur (the French title of the film, BTW, referring to the kidney stones, is Mal de Pierres – but as suffering goes, those dwarf by comparison.) The object of this malingering malaise: a pallid young soldier, sallow of complexion, long of nose, and curt of temperament, who, like Cotillard’s Gabrielle, is staying at a chi-chi, scenic spa. She is there for her stones, he, badly wounded in Indochina, for PTSD. The tension between them, in the murmured, minimalist manner French films are famous for, simmers, and soon, we are treated to one of the few truly moving scenes in the film: a well-lit if overlong episode of lovemaking, more act of mutual mercy than unquenched carnality. The other is a clever if barely believable twist at the film’s end, which may redeem the entire exercise in the eyes of a more forgiving audience.
The aforementioned affair is an opening flashback, triggered by a trip Gabrielle takes with her husband to a small town in rural France where their pre-teen son is scheduled to take part in a piano competition (a circumstance responsible for the film’s main theme, a Tchaikovsky leitmotif which retains it loveliness in spite of its repetition.) It is not far from where the couple first met, her native village, when she, the town tempest, was foisted on him in hopes he might prove a stable influence. He isn’t of course; what she’s looking for is a Jesus, a fallen angel, an agent of salvation, made plain by her semi-sexual overtures to the cross. She finds him at the spa: her wounded soldier, staunchly pious, dying for France’s political sins, who honours her worship of him when he accepts her affection.
This is Garcia, the director, struggling to get out from under another French cultural commodity, the all-purveying blanket of Catholicism. And yet, for all of that, this not much of a religious film; it is, if we may peel off the melodrama label for a moment, a psychological portrait, and as such, a major vehicle for a major actress.
Say what you will about Cotillard, with her folksy looks and her quiet pugnaciousness, but when push comes to shove – and there is much pushing and shoving here – her nondescript demeanor reveals the beating heart of an unabashed showman. Under Garcia, she is put through it all, and welcomes each challenge with depth, energy, and dimension. There is nothing, no matter how disproportionately thin or grandiose, she does not tackle with utmost, if often undeserved, earnestness. She is an object of respect in something that is not.
The only other pleasure the film offers is the game of trying to find how the English title relates to the story (the French stuck to the one from the Italian novella it is generously adapted from); its meaning seems to have gotten lost in the crying, the groaning, the yelling, and the falling. Your reason for buying a ticket may well too.