Anne leaves Estonia to come to Paris and care for Frida, an elderly Estonian lady who emigrated to France long ago. Anne soon realizes that she is not wanted. All Frida wants from life is ... See full summary »
Anne leaves Estonia to come to Paris and care for Frida, an elderly Estonian lady who emigrated to France long ago. Anne soon realizes that she is not wanted. All Frida wants from life is the attention of Stephane, her younger lover from years ago. Stephane, however, is desperate for Anne to stay and look after Frida, even against the old lady's will. In this conflict of strangers, Anne finds her own way... Written by
Compelling and entertaining, but slightly let down by a sickly sweet and creepy ending
Une Estonienne à Paris (An Estonian Woman in Paris) has been released in English-speaking countries under the name A Lady in Paris, partly because it is unlikely that many audiences outside France and Estonia will be as familiar with the history between these two nations during the Soviet takeover of Estonia that caused a sizeable wave of immigration to France. Another reason might have been to keep them from wandering off during the first few dismal, monochromatic, painfully realistic scenes of the film that show our visiting Estonian, Anne (true blue Estonian actress Laine Mägi) slogging through the dispiriting expirations of old age during an especially cold and lonely winter. Her husband has become a pitiful drunk that she must dodge, humour and drag back into the house every night, making her curse herself for marrying him. Her mother (Ita Ever) has dementia, and cannot even remember that she gave birth to Anne, let alone help her deal with her husband. Her father passes away in a remarkably realistic scene that anyone who's witnessed the quiet death of an ageing relative in their care will likely relate to. Her happily successful children are too busy to spend any more time away from their overseas work than that which allows them to be at the funeral and give their mother a hug and a few affectionate words.
So, at her awkwardly stagnant advanced age, Anne takes a job opportunity in Paris to escape the drudgery of her life as a rural housewife who no longer has anyone to care for. Western audiences will likely be just as eager by that point to leave the dreary atmosphere of a heavy foreign drama with such an obscure setting, and dive into the feel-good French female buddy comedy they were promised by the poster.
The position that Anne has been given is the carer of a wealthy, pretentious old Estonian who has long forgotten her native tongue and discarded her cultural background to live the glamorous life of a privileged Parisienne. Frida is still her blatantly Estonian name, but she wears nevertheless with French elegance. She is almost as alone as Anne is, but while Anne's timid, boundlessly benevolent love was rather innocently taken advantage of by her family and friends before they deserted her, Frida has driven them all away with her callous superiority and vehement refusal to acknowledge her mistakes.
The contrast between the two women during their first and most potent scenes together could not be any greater. Frida rests like a hideous siren on her king-size bed after a luxurious night's sleep, in white satin pyjamas that she is ridiculously proud to be wearing, and snarls orders at Anne to leave her alone at once to look after herself in peace, or if she insists on staying to at least get her some good quality croissants for her breakfast and to let her hold the key to her own medicine cabinet, with which she recently attempted suicide. Anne never comes close to matching her charge's senile menace, but nor does she yield to it. Stéphane (Patrick Pineau), the mysterious middle-aged man who is the only other person in Frida's life, has given Anne the job of looking after this endlessly needy woman with strict instructions never to let her have the key to the cabinet again, and she is determined to do her job, no matter how difficult Frida makes it. Although after the first day, she seems determined to quit, until Stéphane earnestly encourages her to persevere. Previously, he was devoting the better part of his daily life to looking after the crabby old woman, and he admits that he has taken this long to hire a carer for her because he was waiting for her to die.
The very engaging first hour or so of new Estonian writer/director Ilmar Raag's first feature set outside his native country beautifully convey the sombre futility of the last few lazy decades cruelly attached to the end of an otherwise spirited, purposeful life, and how they are mostly dictated entirely by the choices made in times of youth and optimism. Once the repulsive frostiness of Frida begins to thaw, and Anne starts quite suddenly to feel a greater affection for her, this sober wisdom is lost to the disappointingly narrow imaginative limitations of Raag and fellow screenwriters Agnès Feuvre and Lise Macheboeuf, who don't seem any way to end the piece other than to have Anne fall in love with Stéphane and become best friends with Frida within the tight pacing restrictions of the running time. The ugly results of a surprise dinner that Anne arranges with Frida and her old Estonian friends are at least a momentary reminder of the intelligent early thematic, plot and character development, but this is soon spoiled by an agonisingly clichéd ending. The grand finale even comes complete with the quick last-minute Hollywood narrative loop of a careless misunderstanding that almost breaks the ties of friendship magically appeared between the three characters which would have been ending on a thoughtful note but is soon resolved in time for a final group hug before the credits roll, and we search through them to see who was responsible for such a disappointing conclusion.
Thankfully, the two lead performances are much more consistent. Mägi gives a very fine, restrained sympathetic performance as the downtrodden Anne, and old-time screen goddess Jeanne Moreau delivers a brilliantly grotesque, much less restrained turn as the rasping, troublesome octogenarian who unexpectedly steals the show in a film that deliberately makes scant use of its dazzling location.
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