Isabelle Huppert delivers another pitch-perfect perf in “The Promised Life” as a flighty, emotionally wounded woman whose life has consisted mostly of wrong turns. However, Huppert’s mastery aside, this is a European Art Film writ large, complete with classical music, gorgeously filmed landscapes, expository voiceovers, poetic transitions and only a ghost’s footprint of a story. Fest fare supreme and a must for Huppert completists, this tony tone poem seems destined to fall between the commercial cracks.
Sylvia (Huppert) is a prostitute in Nice, with a self-protective talent for blocking out huge chunks of her past. When her 14-year-old daughter, Laurence (Maud Forget), skips out on foster care to see her biological mom, Sylvia is rudely dismissive.
In an episode of bad timing, Laurence ends up stabbing a pimp in Sylvia’s apartment. Estranged mother and daughter beat a hasty retreat heading north via train, bus and the kindness of strangers, saying little and contemplating nature. Through an entirely plausible chain of events, Laurence and Sylvia separately meet motorist Joshua (Pascal Greggory), who seems to have a shady history of his own.
Sylvia’s wisp of a plan is to visit the husband and 8-year-old son she skipped out on after the boy’s birth landed her in a psychiatric hospital. Her journey, parsed with flashes of memories (shot on Super-8) and terse exchanges of information with Laurence and Joshua, leads to a few revelations that are momentous for the main character but less so for the viewer.
Widescreen lensing is thoughtful, score majestic.