A recovered alcoholic with a photographic memory trades old demons for uncharted territory in “La Petite Chartreuse.” Although pic’s raw components — a gruff loner, a little girl in a coma, her spacey single mom — sound emotionally over the top, this exquisitely handled drama from Jean-Pierre Denis is about as far away from a Movie of the Week as it’s possible to get. Always spot-on thesp Olivier Gourmet anchors this tale of nature and nurture writ large, and distribs in search of a small film that tackles big issues needn’t hesitate.
Book dealer Etienne Vollard (Gourmet) runs a well-stocked shop in a fair-sized town in the French Alps. Much of his personality is governed by the fact his brain is not entirely his own. Due to an incurable condition, he never forgets a word he’s read; if he reads a whole book, he has it memorized forever.
Etienne’s routine of reading and taking strenuous solitary hikes in the snow-covered mountains is interrupted when, one day, 8-year-old Eva (Bertille Noel-Bruneau) runs out in front of his truck. The authorities assure him that no driver could have stopped in time, but Etienne still feels responsible for knocking her down.
Eva’s single mom, Pascale (Marie-Josee Croze), a would-be actress who serves drinks in a bowling alley, adores her daughter but lacks the inner resources to cope with the fact the child is now in a coma. However, doctors say human voices may rouse Eva, so Etienne visits her regularly, recounting children’s books and adventure tales from memory.
Subsequent developments are touching, wrenching and baroque by turns as pic veers down unusual narrative paths.
Thesps are excellent, with special praise for redheaded tyke Noel-Bruneau and for Marisa Borini as a kindly older woman who keeps Etienne’s business going.
Michel Portal’s expressive jazz score is a fine complement to pic’s narrative evolution. A fair number of Gallic films have been co-produced by the Rhone-Alpes regional authority, but rarely have the area’s majestic peaks and scenic valleys been so well displayed and fittingly incorporated. Title refers to a mountain-bound religious order whose members take a vow of silence.