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Gilles' wife, Elise, who smiles when she thinks of him, cooks and scrubs and cheerfully makes love to him, suspects during her third pregnancy that he is having an affair with her coquettish younger sister, Victorine. Elise suffers, usually in silence. She listens to her husband rave; she asks her priest; she breaks picture frames; she weeps. She decides on a strategy to keep him. Will she succeed? Written by
When the perversion of married love results in the love of perversion in marriage.
This is a hopeless story, but a brilliant film.
By that, I mean it's a cinema-graphic narrative that is bleak to point of utter despair: everything about this exposition of French rural existence of the 1930s leaves very little for the viewer to enjoy -- except for a brief portrait of an idyllic picnic by the lower middle-class family that forms the core of this story.
But, it is also superb film making from the director of A Pornographic Affair (1999), a film I very much admired, when I saw it. This film is much better.
Unlike Affair, where much of the action, shall I say, was behind closed doors and left much to imagination, the director here does the opposite. In fact, it couldn't be more in your face with the very long and often extreme close-ups used to explore the emotions of the aggrieved wife of Gilles, who is a laborer at a local steel mill. I didn't compile a time-scale for on screen presence for each of the three main players, but I'm sure that Elisa (Emmanuelle Devos) has the camera on her mostly with medium, close-up and extreme close-up shots. That's a very difficult piece of acting and Devos's skill is, at times, almost beyond belief.
The story explores the limits of love, using a threesome of the husband, Gilles (Clovis Cornillac), Elisa, and her sister, Victorine (Laura Smet). Gilles lusts after Victorine and the two engage in an incestuous affair; gradually, Elisa learns the truth and because she loves Gilles so much she tries to help Gilles get over it all.
But, Gilles is obsessed with Victorine and loses interest in Elisa, despite her unwavering duty as a wife and mother to their three children. She has faith that Gilles will overcome his aberration and is willing to endue his contempt, disinterest and moral degeneracy so that he will eventually see the light, which is she. Or, so she hopes Gilles, for his own part, sees nothing wrong with his character or behaviour in effect, a total perversion of logic and love. Elisa, attempting to maintain her bleak, down-trodden and very limited world must accept that logic of perversion or suffer the consequences, whatever they may be. The denouement is therefore unavoidable when Elisa realizes she cannot abide that logic any more. As a viewer, you know that something will break and those final scenes will stay with you for a long time, I think.
The acting is first rate, even down to the children of the family. Devos not a raging beauty at all, and vaguely reminiscent of Kate Blanchett is just stunning; her movements, her facial expressions, her limpid eyes are all just perfect in conveying the torment of a wronged wife. Her tragedy, in my opinion, is that she loves too much. Cornillac does an excellent job as the boorish, lustful wannabe lover and husband. Smet is very good as the flighty and fanciful younger sister. I'd not seen any of these actors before; I'll be looking for them again.
The dialog is almost non-existent, as befitting many French films of this genre; nearly all of the real story Elisa's fight to save her marriage is exposed with looks, movements, sighs, tears and the never-ending drudge of existence with a jerk for a husband. I can't recall a better film that has portrayed a situation that is probably acted out, in real life, more often than we know or even think.
Matching the overall mood, the mise-en-scene is picture perfect: semi-rural France, small villages and houses, gray skies, rain, snow, mud, filth and dirty sex on the side. Music is muted, for the most part, the exception being at the dance hall where Elisa sees Gilles and Victorine dancing lasciviously to the rural fanfare.
If you want to see marriage in the raw, then this is a film for you. Those, however, who can't bear the thought of facing such issues, even in a fictional setting, are well advised to avoid this one.
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