Philippe Lioret's "The Light" is a somber but quite satisfying drama of simmering passions that unfolds in an arrestingly atmospheric setting. Played with slow burning intensity by accomplished leads, this old-school production dabbles in cliches but brings a poetic veneer to its heart that should appeal to older specialty audiences.
The kind of handsome French import that was once a staple in the plusher international arthouses but has fallen somewhat out of fashion, Philippe Lioret’s “The Light” is a somber but quite satisfying drama of simmering passions that unfolds in an arrestingly atmospheric setting. Played with slow burning intensity by accomplished leads Sandrine Bonnaire, Philippe Torreton and magnetic newcomer Gregori Derangere, this old-school production dabbles in cliches but brings a poetic veneer to its pulsing romantic heart that should appeal to older specialty audiences in particular.
Present-day frame has Camille (Anne Cosigny) arriving from mainland France to the windswept island of Ouessant off the Brittany coast to sell the cottage lived in by her late parents. A novel sent to Camille’s mother Mabe unlocks secrets from the past that shift the action back to 1963.
Into the tight-knit community comes soulful stranger Antoine (Derangere), a young veteran of the Algerian war, assigned to join the team of lighthouse keepers despite the locals’ feeling that the job should have gone to one of their own.
Easygoing and good-humored despite the animosity directed toward him, Antoine slowly bonds with sullen, unfriendly Yvon (Torreton) during their periods of extended isolation, working together in the offshore lighthouse. But back onshore, the newcomer is unable to disguise his deep attraction to Yvon’s wife Mabe (Bonnaire), who clearly reciprocates.
It takes no genius to see where the story is headed, and Lioret’s direction isn’t exactly full of surprises. But there’s a certain delicacy to the treatment here as both Antoine and Mabe struggle to resist the pull of their feelings for each other.
Lioret and co-screenwriters Emmanuel Courcol and Christian Sinniger also show a sensitive hand in tracing the development of the two men’s relationship, pairing the friction of unspoken rivalry with the physical ardor of working a rigorous job in a claustrophobic situation.
When the inevitable happens between Antoine and Mabe, the film lurches into an almost Hitchcockian suspense mode driven not by cuckolded rage but by the violence of the elements.
The drama could easily have turned into an overripe potboiler, but Lioret keeps the fine cast reined in, adding texture to the central thwarted romance through the fiercely insular nature of the setting and reticent characters, quietly fueled by outsider suspicion and bitterness. Resentment toward Antoine gathers further steam when the handsome intruder unwittingly turns the head of the local pub-owner’s daughter Brigitte (Emilie Dequenne), considered the tastiest catch in the village.
Perhaps the drama’s most distinctive aspect is its majestically lonely physical setting, which recalls Irish cinema more than French fare. Lioret ably harnesses elemental forces for dramatic intensity, from the winds that lash the island to the thundering seas buffeting the lighthouse. That structure itself provides an especially imposing stage for the action, the blinding red sphere of its beacon and the metallic glare of its reflector panels providing a bracing contrast to the generally muted colorscape.
A superb actor who’s used far too infrequently, Torreton — best known for his roles in Bertrand Tavernier’s films — brings depth and complexity to a man whose basic goodness and moral fortitude are somewhat at odds with his gruff, closed nature. Bonnaire reveals the intelligence and longing beneath the surface of a quiet beauty confined all her life to the end-of-the-earth setting, and Dequenne has plenty of sassy charm as Brigitte, who’s restricted by the environment in a different way. In his first leading role, Derangere (“Bon Voyage”) more than holds his own in a subdued performance that shows strength of character.
Lioret’s classically efficient approach is echoed in d.p. Patrick Blossier’s polished lensing and in Italian composer Nicola Piovani’s warm score.