The new French film 'Domain' by the Austrian director Patric Chiha, his first feature, should mainly be seen as a vehicle for the talents of the legendary, iconic Béatrice Dalle, for whom Chiha wrote the screenplay. Dalle has been in more than 35 films but may still be most remembered for her stunning debut performance (with the equally intense Jean-Hugues Anglade) in the 1986 Jean-Jacques Beineix film about a young woman going mad, 'Betty Blue' ('37°2 le matin'). She also had a vivid small role in Claire Denis' 2004 'The Intruder' ('L'intrus'). Dalle is the kind of off-kilter, stunningly assured performer you can't take your eyes off of. However, Domain irritates at least as much as it pleases with its "auteurist" pretensions and unconvincing or underdeveloped elements.
Nadia (Dalle) is a mathematician who is pursued by her lyçée student nephew Pierre (Isaïe Sultan) because he finds her far more interesting than his classmates or his own family; but in the course of the film her descent into alcoholism, which Pierre at first minimizes, eventually leads him to abandon her. He has begun to find his classmates more interesting and, perhaps more important, and he has acknowledged his gayness by taking on a friendly, upbeat 26-year-old boyfriend -- though Nadia's decline remains the main focus of the film to the end.
One element that has been questioned is designating Dalle as a mathematician (specialized in Gödel, no less). For an actress who is best at playing a madwoman or an eccentric, this occupation seems unlikely, and it's a detail apparently added in to the screenplay as an afterthought to give Nadia something to do, or have done up to her current decline. Pierre is a perfect-looking young man who smiles a lot. His rejection of his family guidance, represented by little conversations in the kitchen with his mom, Jeanne (Tatiana Vialle), seem to cause him as little discomfort as his being gay. As Pierre, Isaïe Sultan's acting consists mostly of that smiling, and finally some crying. Everything is too easy for him to be true. He gets a perfect boyfriend called Fabrice (Manuel Marmier) simply by having a little conversation on a bus. If that's how it works in Bordeaux, where the main action takes place, all young gay men should consider moving there. Fabrice leads Pierre to spend fewer afternoons with Nadia, who seems to need Pierre more then he needs her.
Chiha has Nadia spout a lot of ideas about order, and how to walk (fast, with a good rhythm). Her relationship with Pierre at first consists of frequent after school strolls in the park. Later they go to cafés or clubs where she gets drunk and he has to help her home. Some have said this is a very French film, but it seems a very Austrian one, with its focus on geometry, direction, cleanness, order, and its finale in an Austrian resort hotel where Nadia goes for a cure, where Pierre visits her, but finds she has only sunk into greater despair. She sees her alcoholism as a decline into chaos. The word "Domain" itself suggests an area of control. This movie seems to have a weak grasp of the actual. It avoids movie clichés of alcoholic behavior, but seems largely out of touch with reality in its focus on an odd relationship between a teenager and a forty-something woman that seems unmotivated and doesn't develop.
We are forced to endure pointless scenes at bars with the only friend of Nadia who doesn't abandon her, a dubious character called Samir (Alain Libolt), or eating bad pizza at home, again with Samir, or watching a gaunt gay cabaret singer whose stage name is Joan Crawford. The music is alternately too light or too obtrusive, and the low-light scenes have poor image quality, though landscapes and closeups of the two principals are fine.
There are plenty of faults in 'Domain.' And yet the very preposterousness of the connection between Pierre and Nadia and the theatricality of their brisk walks wind up making their relationship memorable. Isaïe Sultan has enough presence to hold his own with Dalle, and Dalle is hypnotic and fun to watch, a figure of such defiant assurance that you can almost believe anything attributed to her. And the actress' own history of substance problems adds conviction to her performance as someone who finally says drinking is "all I do." This film, which opened April 14, 2010 in France, did only moderately well with French critics according to an Allociné rating of 2.19/35; some found it interesting others not, but all praised Dalle.
Seen as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2010.
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