Willfully opaque during its first half, and intense and moody throughout, “Passionately” is a nervous and disjointed tale of star-crossed lovers that could be given the handle “Chronicle of Two Deaths Foretold.” Sad, serious venture, which captures the feeling of tragedy lurking in paradise, may appeal to hopeless romantics with bountiful patience, but looks unlikely to round up many customers beyond die-hard fans of lead thesps Gerard Lanvin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who do what they can with potentially touching but overwrought material.
This is former d.p. Bruno Nuytten’s third feature in a dozen years, following the histrionic behemoth “Camille Claudel” (1988) and the freewheeling but negligible “Albert Suffers” (1992). Flung across the screen with a restless faux intimacy, his latest effort strands the viewer without a paddle in a sea of haltingly expressed emotion.
Pic starts with a bang — literally — when two cars collide on an otherwise deserted road at dusk. Jarring, utterly convincing incident sets up a mood of expectation that is eventually worn out by several reels’ worth of the cast’s semi-frantic, under-explained actions. While there’s nothing wrong with doling out info in bits and pieces, the narrative here is top-heavy with veiled urgency, wary glances and desperate gestures.
Immediately after the crash, pic cuts to a thirtysomething Frenchman talking to a beautiful young woman in a college dorm. She asks him to explain the circumstances under which her father died. He says he’ll start with a certain Alice, who was driving “the other car.” Pic then flashes back for the next hour, revisiting events around Bastille Day 10 years earlier, in the island community of Porquerolles.
Fragile but determined, Alice (Gainsbourg) arrives at the height of the tourist season and surprises the motherly hotel chambermaid (Liliane Rovere), who warns her that “Bernard is back.” Alice claims not to particularly care. Seen separately, Bernard (Lanvin) has a staff of handymen and sailors at his beck and call, including loyal but increasingly ambivalent young skipper Loic (Eric Ruf). Bernard dotes on his young daughter, Faustine, who is mostly attended to by a dark-skinned nanny.
It turns out that, with Loic’s help, Bernard recently sailed to France from Brazil, where he’d been living for some years. There’s much talk about how bad things will happen if Bernard ever tries to “round Cape Horn” or “set foot in Brazil” again. Meanwhile, Alice pokes around, spies on Bernard, passes out and indulges in all sorts of strange behavior, including stripping and swimming in the wake of a motor launch carrying Bernard and his daughter.
When protags meet, nearly an hour into the movie, the scattered information finally coalesces: Bernard in fact means a great deal to Alice, although they haven’t seen each other in “5,417 nights” — not since the scandal that surfaced when she was merely 15. By pic’s end, we understand how and why those two cars ended up pleated into each other.
Pic functions as a heady, feverish tone poem on romantic devotion gone haywire. It may also, however, be read as helmer’s take on his own career switch, having turned his back forever on his “first love,” cinematography. (Through the ’70s and much of the ’80s, Nuytten was one of Europe’s hottest lensers, working with Bernard Blier, Marguerite Duras, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Berri, Alain Resnais, Andre Techine and others.)
Cutting is often stunningly abrupt, reinforcing the mood of life-restricting choices and truncated possibilities. Constant sounds of crickets and other insects are a bit overdone, but Richard Galliano and Michel Portal’s score is agreeable.