The breakup of a Parisian couple after 15 years of marriage forms the trauma-strewn proving ground for actress-turned-director Sophie Marceau’s feature bow, a little-disguised autobiographic account of her relationship with director Andrzej Zulawski. Marceau may take her transition to director a little too much to heart — she rarely gives her two stars, Julie Godreche and Niels Arestrup, room to breathe. The problem lies not with these normally finely nuanced actors, but with the iconographic weight of every image. The jury at the Montreal World Film Festival prized Marceau’s ambition with the fest’s directing award, but pic strains visually to create a mise en scene that seems to work against the small-scale, interpersonal Gallic divorce drama it’s supposed to serve. Absence of bankable leads or clear-cut story arc make it unlikely auds will feel the need to import divorce, French-style, but Franco auds may be convivial.
Justine (Godreche), a still-young and beautiful woman, works as a part-time translator and full-time mother of three little boys. Indeed, she’s supermom, batting a thousand with all three kids simultaneously, never uttering a cross word or putting a foot down wrong. Richard (Arestrup), much older than his mate, is a fairly well-known novelist and scriptwriter who drinks too much. Script purports to be evenhanded in apportioning blame for the breakup –and the weariness and pain of each partner registers equally — but the deck feels stacked against what passes for male logic. Richard can’t forgive Justine her long-ago infidelities — even though they occurred as a direct result of his having refused to make love to her for three years because, in his alcoholic state, he found her “undesirable.” His baseless, jealous rages elicit little sympathy, except for her.
Film burrows into the everyday details of each broken half’s life after the traumatic separation. Justine keeps the apartment and the kids, sharing natural epiphanies with them on her parents’ farm, rolling down grassy hills, climbing willow trees by pastoral ponds and romping with donkeys and horses. Escalating flashbacks to Justine’s childhood memories of her parents’ marital breakup enrich her relationship to her mother and add backstory to her own marriage.
Meanwhile, Richard wanders the streets of Barcelona, where he’s traveled to write the libretto for a Japanese musician’s modern opera. But the gig is canceled before it starts, and a promising meeting with a young female violin virtuoso in a lantern-lit garden leads nowhere. If this is impartiality, one shudders to think what bias looks like.
Pic has its share of affecting moments, and the leads quite convincingly relate to each other. Certainly, next to schmaltzfests like “The Story of Us” or “Stepmom,” these characters read as fully three-dimensional and the plot as restrained realism. Emmanuel Machuel’s lensing and Marceau’s staging choices are often ingenious in individual doses — for instance, there’s some nice Steadicam choreography charting the insane logistics of getting three kids off to school. The trouble is that the overworked camera is rarely still, and whenever it pauses, the pause is pregnant with meaning. There are no simple moments, no down time, and the wholly airless visual style winds up overdramatizing the humdrum.
Tech credits are OK — editing, sound and music all of a piece with the professional but generally overblown nature of project.