"Cartagena" is several notches above a disease-of-the-week telepic, but several notches below an elevating tale of transforming love.

Several notches above a disease-of-the-week telepic, but several notches below an elevating tale of transforming love, “Cartagena” gets by on a poised performance by Sophie Marceau as a paralyzed expat whose life is given new meaning by a disheveled ex-boxer. Teaming of real-life couple Marceau and Christophe Lambert actually packs less of a punch than helmer-writer Alain Monne’s careful direction and Antoine Roch’s pristine lensing of colonial Colombian locations. Opening modestly in Gaul mid-November, the pic would make OK filler in French film weeks.

The setup is a stretch, as scruffy Leo (Lambert) applies for a nursing job at the tony house of bedridden bitch Muriel (Marceau) and is taken on, despite having no qualifications and a drinking problem. As Muriel’s longtime maid/companion, Lucia (Margarita Rosa de Francisco), explains, Muriel has already gone through 40 female carers without once having hired a man.

Paralyzed in a car accident three years earlier, Muriel decided never to return to France. Leo — who’s half-Colombian, half-French — needs the work, as his pugilistic career is over and his possibilities as a trainer nil.

Story gains some traction as initial hostility between Muriel and Leo turns to something else, as she delights in giving him a hard time and he refuses to be riled. Credibly playing a recluse who’s paralyzed from the neck down, Marceau, looking elegant and sophisticated in her early 40s, does wonders with a raised eyebrow or ironic look, helping to mitigate Lambert’s growly, one-note performance.

Leo’s parallel life, as he tries to recapture his mojo by training a tough young hooker-cum-boxer, Lina (Linett Hernandez Valdes), is less convincingly integrated into the pic. The main emotional thrust lies with the Muriel-Leo story, in which she finds herself falling for the lug but realizes she has little to offer him apart from her money.

As the loyal companion who sees her role in Muriel’s life usurped by the unreliable Leo, de Francisco is good, though the character of Lucia is foggily drawn, especially in the latter stages.

Still, in his first helming outing, onetime production manager/a.d. Monne constructs a tight package that, through frequent ellipses, keeps things moving and doesn’t overstretch the flimsy material. Florencia Di Concilio’s languorous score, which features solo cello, underpins the finely tuned visuals without overdosing on tropical ennui.

Cartagena

France

Production

A Rezo Films release of a Cine Nomine, Thelma Films production, in association with Arte France Cinema, with participation of Canal Plus, CineCinema, Arte France. (International sales: Goldcrest Films Intl., London.) Produced by Pierre Forette, Thierry Wong, Christine Gozlan. Directed by Alain Monne. Screenplay, Monne, Nathalie Vailloud, based on the 2002 novel by Eric Holder.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Antoine Roch; editor, Catherine Schwartz; music, Florencia Di Concilio; art director, Yann Megard; costume designer, Marine Chauveau; sound (Dolby Digital), Cesar Salazar, Corinne Rozenberg, Francois Groult; assistant director, Stephane Reurs. Reviewed at Thessaloniki Film Festival (Special Screening), Nov. 20, 2009. (Also in Dubai Film Festival.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With

(French, Spanish dialogue)
(French, Spanish dialogue)

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