Flaubert’s classic tale of solitude and loss gets a sexed-up new face in “A Simple Heart,” the first feature by actress-turned-writer-helmer Marion Lane. Moody yarn of two women in a love-hate, servant-master relationship features tour-de-force playing by Sandrine Bonnaire, who screams and claws her way through the French countryside without ever uttering a complete sentence. Some strong secondary perfs help boost a narrative that lacks rhythm and flatlines in the later stages. However, film’s lush, pastoral imagery and French-lit content could help it in overseas markets, especially among festival and arthouse auds.
Claiming to be “freely inspired” by Flaubert’s short story, the film offers up a mostly heavy-handed reading, and has been egged with pathos and mild-to-medium-hot erotica absent from the original. Thus, in a wildly interpretative opening flashback, we learn Felicite (Bonnaire) opted for a servant’s life after being dumped by lumberjack Theodore (Pascal Elbe), who’s disappointed when she orgasms after he’s barely laid a hand on her.
Felicite finds employment with recently widowed Madame Aubain (Marina Fois), who spends her days frowning around the house and taking extended afternoon naps. Madame Aubain’s younger children, Paul (Antoine Olivera) and especially bright, blonde Clemence (Melissa Dima), provide Felicite with a love and tenderness she’s never received from her fellow adults.
However, Madame Aubain grows jealous of the bond forming behind her back and spends the rest of the movie trying to drive a wedge between Felicite and Clemence. She berates Felicite’s simple-minded naivete whenever she gets a chance, and sends depressed teenage Clemence (now played by Marthe Guerin) to a faraway convent school.
Now alone together, the two women reach an emotional stalemate. Madame Aubain attempts an affair with her swarthy music teacher (Thibault Vincon), which results in lots of steamy cello-playing scenes that lead nowhere. Meanwhile, Felicite finds an emotional outlet by caring for her vibrant nephew, Victor (Romain Scheiner, later played by Johan Liberau). Final reels show both women drifting further and further toward insanity and ruin.
Whatever irony Flaubert may or may not have intended is zapped by Laine’s often overwrought direction, which can’t seem to find the right tone to handle the script’s more outre moments. Prime example is Felicite’s outlandish love affair with Loulou, a chatty South American parrot who becomes the object of her remaining affections. One zany scene has her trying to make out with the bird, whom she confuses with her ex, Theodore.
Still, Bonnaire offers up an impressively animalistic perf that manages to sustain interest until almost the end. Expert at playing taciturn outcasts, Bonnaire is best when she allows her awkward, toothy smile to reveal the humanity behind her character’s misguided devotion.
Tech credits are steady, with Guillaume Schiffman’s warm lensing making the most of Normandy’s green landscapes. Rich sound design by Jean-Marie Blondel and Dominique Gaborieau accentuates the rustic atmosphere, and provides clever solutions for showing Felicite’s semi-deaf state at pic’s close.