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Making Plans for Lena

This rather loose-hinged version of "A Christmas Tale" is only partially held together by Honore's direction.

Cast:
With: Chiara Mastroianni, Marina Fois, Marie Christine Barrault, Jean-Marc Barr, Louis Garrel, Fred Ulysse, Julien Honore, Marcial di Fonzo Bo, Alice Butaud, Caroline Silhol, Donatien Suner, Lou Pasquerault, Jean-Baptiste Fonck.

While “Love Songs” and “Dans Paris” revealed prolific filmmaker Christophe Honore to be a direct descendant of the French New Wave, he heads straight into Arnaud Desplechin territory with the turbulent family drama “Making Plans for Lena.” Set predominantly in a country house, and then a Parisian apartment, where the titular femme (Chiara Mastroianni) dukes it out with parents, siblings, a former spouse and ultimately herself, this rather loose-hinged version of “A Christmas Tale” is only partially held together by Honore’s direction, though overall dramatic impact remains diffuse. Pic reps the helmer’s strongest French opener; plans for overseas pickups are feasible.

Like Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale,” “Lena” features a bourgeois French family forever on the verge of a nervous breakdown, oscillating between bouts of affection and hate, and headed by a pair of senior lovebirds, one of whom is terminally ill. (It was also produced by the same outfit, Paris-based shingle Why Not Prods.)

But comparisons with “Tale” — as well as with Desplechin’s “Kings and Queen,” which featured a similarly harried female protag — end there: While Desplechin completely dominates his material on both artistic and emotional levels, Honore seems to apply a more laissez-faire approach, sketching out several characters and plot points but never placing them in a coherent stream nor offering the emotional wallop needed to smack the story homeward.

An opening scene in which divorced mother of two Lena (Mastroianni) loses track of her son (Donatien Suner) at the train station sets the stage for all the upcoming hoopla: Not only is it clear that Lena is incapable of managing her children, but she places the wounded bird scooped up by her kids in a travel bag, and inadvertently kills it.

When the clan arrives at the family’s Brittany homestead for summer holidays, Lena’s difficult relationship with her chain-smoking, pregnant sister (Marina Fois), her prankster hippyish bro (Julien Honore), and her nosy mom (Marie Christine Barrault) is further complicated by the arrival of ex-hubby, Nigel (Jean-Marc Barr). All have a hard time stomaching Lena, whose paranoid antics send her on the road, and then back again, until she’s pretty much had it out with everyone.

Mastroianni (also in “A Christmas Tale”) manages to channel real energy into her character early on, making for a strong performance reminiscent of both Emmannuelle Devos in “Kings and Queen” and Gena Rowland’s unruly protags in the films of John Cassavettes. But unlike her predecessors, Lena remains forever elusive and agitated, while the causes of her condition are never explained (unless you count an artsy medieval fable — inserted midway through — about a young bride who poisons bachelors by dancing with them).

The action heads to Paris in the third act, with an extended cameo by Honore favorite Louis Garrel as Lena’s erstwhile love interest, though by this point, she’s incapable of holding down a b.f., a job and, clearly, her own sanity.

Accompanying cast is adequate, with Barrault (“My Night at Maud’s”) and Barr (“The Big Blue”) tamping down their perfs more than the others. Tech package is slightly unwieldy, giving the impression that scenes — co-penned with novelist Genevieve Brisac — were improvised and caught on the fly by d.p. Laurent Brunet (“Seraphine”).

Making Plans for Lena

France

Production: A Le Pacte release of a Why Not Prods., France Televisions, Le Pacte production, with participation of Canal Plus, France Televisions, Orange Cinema Series, La Region Bretagne. (International sales: Le Pacte, Paris.) Produced by Pascal Caucheteux. Directed by Christophe Honore. Screenplay, Honore, Genevieve Brisac.

Crew: Camera (color), Laurent Brunet; editor, Chantal Hymans; music, Alex Beaupain; production designer, Samuel Deshors; costume designer, Pierre Canitrot; sound (Dolby Digital), Guillaume Le Braz, Valerie Deloof, Thierry Delor; assistant director, Sylvie Peyre; casting, Richard Rousseau. Reviewed at UGC Cine Cite Les Halles 6, Paris, Sept 3, 2009. (In San Sebastian Festival --- competing.) Running time: 107 MIN.

With: With: Chiara Mastroianni, Marina Fois, Marie Christine Barrault, Jean-Marc Barr, Louis Garrel, Fred Ulysse, Julien Honore, Marcial di Fonzo Bo, Alice Butaud, Caroline Silhol, Donatien Suner, Lou Pasquerault, Jean-Baptiste Fonck.

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