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Charming If Flawed Movie Told from Child's Viewpoint
This is a creative, offbeat but ultimately flawed movie told from the point of view of a young French boy. The film is set in 1972 and revolves around the life of a six year old boy, Sebastian (played convincingly by Nathan Georgelin). He's in elementary school and his mother, Marie (Emannuelle Beart) is a teacher at the same school.
The boy fantasizes that she is the Queen of England and there are lovely dream-like sequences of her "performing" as the Queen, "waving" to her subjects, for instance. Such scenes capture the simplicity and innocence of childhood. Perhaps Sebastian has these dreams because he can sense that all is not well with his father who is in a separate world of his own. He's an engineer who has quit his job and taken up inventing but his would-be inventions (like a "4th piano" pedal to turn the pages for piano players) never seem to work. It's clear that his own family sees him as a failure, someone who cannot fit into everyday life. Indeed, there is one gripping scene in which Sebastian's brother rips into his own father for his failures. All is not well in bed between father (beautifully played by Jacques Gamblin) and mother too and to add to this dysfunctional family, grandpa, who lives with them, still believes World War II is going on.
Sebastian's world changes when new neighbors move in next door. The new lady neighbor is a colorful dingbat, another escapist who wants to create an Andalusian theme for her house and life. She doesn't seem to realize that her boyfriend--they marry later--has fallen in love with Sebastian's mother. The love triangle is completed with this man, a handsome railway worker called Philippe (well acted by Stefano Accorsi). So in this dreamlike world, his mother is not only a Queen in his escapist fantasies, she is in reality in love with another woman's husband and ultimately she acts as a destroyer. The film becomes darker when the abandoned girlfriend/wife becomes pregnant. She finally realizes her boyfriend/husband has been unfaithful and decides to move away to solve the problem. Marie pursues the railway worker but he abandons her completely, throwing her away in a gutter. Again, why and how he manages to change his rakish ways overnight is not made clear. This is just one of the unbelievable aspects of the plot. Likewise, it seems absurd that anyone in modern day France would be oblivious of the hot love affair between Philippe and Marie, as the railway worker's wife is for so long. A third problem is that the spurned Marie now essentially goes crazy and dies. Her transformation from dutiful teacher/wife to a wanton woman is never explained. All of this seems a bit far fetched upon reflection and after the movie is over but while it is running, the story is so well acted and moves in such a brisk pace that it holds the viewer's interest. At the same time, the numerous plot and directing problems cannot be ignored by the viewer, and he/she ultimately has the feeling of "this doesn't seem right". Reflecting on the movie, I feel that the director/writer (one and the same person) had an excellent idea dealing essentially with escape from painful situations. The boy escapes from his problems by dreaming; the grandpa escapes by returning to his glory years of WWII; the railway worker's girlfriend/wife escapes in her Andalusian fantasies. The only people who do not escape, like Marie the faithless teacher/wife, are ultimately hurt. The railway worker also doesn't escape and has to live with the woman he doesn't particularly love. While the escapist/dreaming theme is an acceptable and interesting one, it is never really developed by the writer/director in a proper way. In fact, this movie scores a number of "near hits" but always seems to fall short of what it could have been in better hands.
This is further shown at the end of the story when the plot takes another absurd twist when Sebastian's failed inventor father finally comes up with a mysterious invention (never explained but dealing with tea pots of all things!) that enriches him and the family, and of course, leads to an interview with the real Queen of England! This rather silly ending is so weak that it can only be explained by the fact that the director wanted a happy ending. With this preposterous ending, Philippe acts out of character with what we have seen with them on the screen. Moreover, the writer/director seems to ignore the likely impact of such a story on the formative mind of a young boy, other than to make the somewhat obvious point that such a boy might be driven to fantasy/dreaming. I think he missed a major opportunity to address that question. The director, it seems, was unable to decide whether his story is a comedy/farce or a tragedy and ultimately ends with the lighter touch but one that is simply pedestrian: the weak husband triumphant.
So all in all, an absorbing, entertaining movie held together by some very strong acting performances. Unfortunately, they are undermined by an essentially weak and unbelievable plot that fails to address the central question of what all of these human foibles would have done to a young boy's developing personality. In fact, the boy at the end of the movie is pretty much as he is at the start,which would be extremely doubtful given all that happened to him and those around him.
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