The Idol is an interesting mix that comes together into a stunning film. An Australian director working in France for the first time (in French language) with two American lead actors (one of whom apparently didn't speak any French when cast) and a script worked on by veteran scriptwriter Gerard Brach (Jean De Florette, The Name Of The Rose) could have been a mess but instead Samantha Lang has crafted a beautifully moving and delicate drama.
Brief plot outline, no spoilers: The lives of the residents of a French apartment block are disrupted by the arrival of a young Australian woman (Sobieski), a struggling theatre actress. Her neighbour is an elderly Chinese man respected by the other residents, who is considering moving into a retirement community.
The two are drawn together through their loneliness and a touching grandfather-granddaughter sort of relationship develops between them, reminiscent of that in Kieslowski's Three Colours:
The triumph of the film is the performances of the two lead actors. James Hong, given the chance to shine in a rare lead role, tackles the character and the language with an expert pitch, embuing Mr Zao with an almost mystical quality. He is both a man you wish you knew and a tragic figure that you want to comfort and care for.
Equally impressive is Sobieski displaying an acting talent that she has rarely demonstrated in her recent poor choices of role in generic American thrillers like The Glass House. At first all smouldering eyes and wry smiles she also grows over the course of the film into a sympathetic and tragic figure, allowing the audience to truly care what happens to both these characters and understand the deep core of loneliness that brings them together despite their differences.
The supporting actors also flesh out strong characters. Veteran French actor Jean-Paul Roussillon provides humour as the drunken upstairs neighbour who must sneak cigarettes from Mr Zao so that his interfering wife doesn't know he is smoking. While Marie Loboda as Caroline, a little girl who lives in the building (and bears a striking resemblance to Emmanuelle Beart) exudes innocence and charm. Both these characters also undergo changes as their jealousy of the relationship formed between Zao and Sarah (Sobieski) overcomes them.
The only negative, and it is a small one, is that the score by Oscar winning composer Gabriel Yared (The English Patient, Betty Blue), while a lovely Woody-Allenesque jazz style, seems a little out of place with this film which often seems to be creating emotions that are in conflict to those the music suggests.
The photography matches the story in its quiet mood and, along with the set design and locations adds a sense of loneliness to the film that draws you to the characters for comfort as well and therefore makes their lives all the more important to you. A particularly well played and haunting dream sequence will stay with you long after your first viewing of the film.
I say first viewing because you will want to revisit these characters and return to see this expertly measured film all over again. A tender tale of loneliness and the gentle love that can exist between two people this is a must see for anybody who wants to be moved or appreciate fine acting and a delicate unrushed story. Truly wonderful film-making.
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