A mature, mellow tranche of French humanist cinema, flecked with sly wit and played by an aces cast, Claude Miller’s “La petite Lili” will find a warm welcome among upscale viewers attuned to the finer things of life. Seamlessly transposing Chekhov’s “The Seagull” from late 19th-century Russia to modern-day rural France, and its characters from the theater to film world, pic works as both an adaptation and a movie in its own right, though many of the nuances will only be apparent to viewers familiar with the original play. Following the very different but equally accomplished “Class Trip” and “Betty Fisher and Other Stories,” 61-year-old Miller is now at the top of his game. Following its Competition slot in Cannes, film goes out Aug. 27 in Gaul.
Though the opening credits note the script, by Miller and Julien Boivent, is “freely inspired by Anton Chekhov,” it features all of the play’s characters in easily identifiable roles, plus a structure that closely follows the original until the final act. Aside from finding a clever alternative solution to the play’s sudden ending, pic’s last section goes its own way, with a warm and moving inclusiveness that strongly recalls the late Gallic maestro Claude Sautet.
The film-within-a-film ending has superficial parallels with Francois Truffaut’s classic “Day for Night.” But where that movie was concerned with the nuts-and-bolts of filmmaking, Miller uses the device more to draw together the character threads, exorcising the past for life to continue in the present.
Setting is an idyllic lakeside setting in southern Brittany, concisely but atmospherically sketched under the main titles with landscape shots enhanced by expressionist musical fragments. At a beautiful old stone house (“L’Esperance”), painted in a Slavic light blue, a group of people linked by the movie business are whiling away a summer.
Owner of the house is famous actress Mado (Nicole Garcia, in the Arkadina role), who’s just finished a movie with her current lover, director Brice (Bernard Giraudeau, Trigorin). Also on hand is her intense young son, Julien (Robinson Stevenin, Treplyov), who’s in love with sexy local sprite Lili (Ludivine Sagnier, Nina), who steals away from her conservative father across the lake to spend time with Julien and his circle.
Holding an unrequited torch for Julien is Jeanne-Marie (Julie Depardieu, Masha), daughter of the janitor (Marc Betton, Shamrayev), whose wife (Anne Le Ny, Polina) lusts after a boring local doctor, Serge (Yves Jacques, Dorn). Surveying all the characters, and life in general, with an acerbic eye is Mado’s 70-year-old brother, Simon (Jean-Pierre Marielle, Sorin), an unrepentant bon viveur who loathes the countryside.
Julien, a young experimental filmmaker at war with the world, has just finished a DV short, starring Lili, which everyone dutifully assembles to watch in an outhouse. Tensions between Mado and Julien soon erupt, as she brands the arty pic “a provincial Bergman rip-off” and her son “a moody, pretentious little fool.” On his side, Julien reckons mom has sold out her talent and that Brice is an establishment hack who makes movies with “people standing around in apartments having literary conversations.”
The ambitious Lili, who doesn’t exactly take Julien’s side in these discussions, is attracted by the whole film-biz ambience and sets her sights on the calm, educated Brice. It’s actually the wound-up Jeanne-Marie who defends Julien, though he’s oblivious to her interest.
In a mixture of ensemble scenes (set around the open-air meal table) and one-on-ones (in the lakeside forest, or inside the house), the characters work out their relationships, with youth vs. maturity, optimism vs. cynicism, experience vs. idealism. The final act, set five years later, reunites the whole cast in the shooting of a regular feature film (“La disparition”), directed by Julien and based on that same summer, with most of the real people (including Lili, now a hot young actress), that movingly celebrates the constancy of shared ties.
Aside from always surprising with his choice of material, Miller has retained a discreetly maverick edge which peeks through the cracks in “La petite Lili,” especially in a stunning coup de cinema in which Lili’s character is transfigured in filmic terms. But overall, pic is a surprisingly mellow work, sympathetic to both sides of the filmmaking equation (repped by young Julien and middle-aged Brice), and the upbeat finale is very different from Chekhov’s 1895 play, which the writer memorably described as beginning forte and ending pianissimo. In movie terms, it works.
Perfs are similarly mellow, with Garcia playing down the theatrical grande dame aspects of the Arkadina role as Mado, and the always excellent Giraudeau quietly assured, with no apparent tendentiousness, as Brice. Elder cast is beautifully topped off by Marielle, dropping witty one-liners like an old pro. Fellow veteran Michel Piccoli pops up at the end in a filmic in-joke that will have buffs squirming with pleasure.
Younger players are also acutely cast, with hot young thesp Sagnier (“Swimming Pool”) gradually revealing the depths of her ambition — as well as the limits to which she’ll go to achieve it — without turning her into a manipulative bitch. Stevenin is good as Julien, though the role is the most schematic of all the characters, while Depardieu, in a smaller role, gives further evidence of being one of Gaul’s most promising younger actresses.
Helming is precise throughout, with marvelous photography of the main location by Gerard de Battista and acute use of extracts from works by Arvo Part to underline the slightly magical rural setting. Apart from a slight dip around the hour mark, running time is fine.