It naturally lacks the charm, the focus, the elegance and the fabulous quality of his Paris films, which deal with idealized or imaginary families and romanticized, amusing, frivolous young men, as represented by his alter ego, Louis Garrel. Garrel appears fleetingly here as Simon, Léna's (Mastroianni's) younger lover or would-be lover. Typically, he plays his almost throwaway role with lightness and verve, bringing welcome moments of fun into what is, after all, for the most part a pretty heavy flick.
Taking her two children to the country to stay with her parents (Marie-Christine Barrault and Fred Ulysse, seen as both annoying and sexy), she encounters her ex-husband, the American Nigel (Jean-Marc Barr). On hand is her playful younger brother Gulven (played by the director's own brother Julien Honoré). Her sister (Marina Foïs) is fighting with her husband (Jean-Baptiste Fonck) and seems on the verge of divorce. Léna comes on the scene as one who can't cope: she momentarily loses her son Anton (Donatien Suner) in the Gare Montparnasse train station before ever leaving Paris. Then she agrees to take away the sick bird they've found but puts it in a bag that kills it. As in Honoré's Love Songs, Mastroianni is continually troubled and sad and overwhelmed. But this is the much bigger role that Honoré wanted to give her. As Variety reviewer Jordan Mintzer writes of this career-capping performance, Mastroianni "manages to channel real energy into her character early on, making for a strong performance reminiscent of both Emmannuelle Devos in (Desplechin's) Kings and Queen and Gena Rowland's unruly protags in the films of John Cassavettes." And the thing is, the other principal actors are also in top form and some of their best work.
The irony is that everyone else in the family wants to make Léna happy, and all this "making plans" for her makes her feel put-upon and overwhelmed. She wavers back and forth about whether to leave, with or without the children, and carries her worries about her role in life back with her to Paris.
Anton is more articulate and calm than Léna is (and we get to see children really tormented by watching the desperate honesty of adults). In the country, he and Lena go on a walk and he recounts a Breton tale, of Katell Gollet (Katel the Lost). The story is dramatized by figures in traditional Breton costume enacting a festival where Katell torments young men by making them dance to death and winds up marrying the devil to defy her father.
This strange but powerful interlude divides the film in two. Afterwards it returns to Paris and to Léna's continuing difficulty coping in her own life, wither taking care of the kids or her demanding job at a big florist shop that requires her to do wholesale buying and delivery service for an unsympathetic boss (Caroline Sihol).
This has been seen by French critics as a feminist film, and it focuses primarily on how overburdened the modern woman is. But men are not demonized. When Léna can't pick up her children because of a delivery to a cemetery, Nigel immediately steps in to help. But there still comes a literally shattering moment for Anton.
Making Plans for Léna, which is being released in the US by IFC Films, surprises with its complexity after the New Wave-ish, stylish and relatively brittle Paris trilogy with a rounded, complex, mature work that takes Christophe Honoré to a new level. Long overshadowed by her illustrious parents, the film icons Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve ever since her small part was cut out of a Fellini film when she was eight years old, Chiara Mastroianni here finally has the opportunity to carry a film with a rich and complex role.
Non ma fille, tu n'iras pas danser opened September 3 in Paris to excellent reviews. IFC release in the USA. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York, March 2010.