Women of three generationsstruggle to understand each other in "Hidden Diary."

Women of three generations, embodied by Marina Hands, Catherine Deneuve and Marie-Josee Croze, struggle to understand each other in “Hidden Diary,” yet another Gallic family-with-a-deep-dark-secret movie. But helmer Julie Lopes-Curval proves surprisingly subtle in orchestrating the familial Sturm und Drang in a story that recalls “Julie and Julia,” as a rediscovered recipe binds women across time. Dynamite cast, assured direction and an intriguingly far-fetched premise could spell respectable Francophone B.O. Arthouse distribution elsewhere is a longshot.

Pic combines the setting of Lopes-Curval’s Camera d’Or-winning first film, “Seaside,” with the womanly concerns of the sisters in “You and Me,” her second.

Audrey (Hands), who has channeled her childhood obsession with toy ovens into a prestigious, high-pressure job designing state-of-the-art kitchen appliances, is pregnant. She heads home to France from Canada, and the lukewarm embrace of physician mother Martine (Deneuve in matriarchal ice-queen mode). But after a particularly vitriolic exchange, shocking in its sudden intensity, Audrey relocates to the nearby ancestral digs vacated by her recently deceased fashion designer grandfather.

There, she stumbles upon the diary of her grandmother Louise (Marie-Josee Croze in flashbacks), who left her husband and young children years before and was never heard from again. This desertion seems to be at the root of Martine’s maternal failings with Audrey.

As Audrey reads from her grandmother’s diary, scenes from Louise’s repressed 1950s housewife existence start to unfold before the younger woman’s eyes. Through Philippe Guilbert’s lens, this time-shifting scene feels organic rather than gimmicky.

But rather than sending the film spinning off into realms of Gallic whimsy or ghost-inhabited madness, Louise’s apparition serves to anchor the three women in a concrete, ocean-bordered locale. Croze looks so eerily natural in her 1950s setting that it frees her characterization from the curse of feminist revisionism, and Hands, as the reluctantly pregnant Audrey, projects a complex mixture of strength and vulnerability that makes her time-spanning empathy palpable.

Lopes-Curval wisely avoids any climactic feel-good hugs. Pic was originally titled “The Kitchen.”

Hidden Diary

France-Canada

Production

A Sombrero Films (France) production, in co-production with France 3 Cinema, Filmo, with the participation of Canal Plus, CineCinema, France 3.(International sales: Bac Films Intl., Paris.) Produced by Alain Benguigui, Thomas Verhaeghe. Co-producer, Francois Landry. Directed by Julie Lopes-Curval. Screenplay, Lopes-Curval, Sophie Hiet.

Crew

Camera (color), Philippe Guilbert; editor, Anne Weil; music, Patrick Watson; production designer, Philippe van Herwijnen; costume designer, Dorothee Guiraud; sound (Dolby Digital), Francois Guillaume; sound designer, Sylvain Bellemare; casting, Nathaniele Esther. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 1, 2009. Running time: 104 MIN (French, English dialogue)

With

Marina Hands, Catherine Deneuve, Marie-Josee Croze, Michel Duchaussoy, Jean-Philippe Escoffey, Carole Franck, Romano Orzari.
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