The myth of a happy childhood, bound up with memories of a lost island paradise, proves stronger than reality in Mariette Monpierre’s Guadeloupe-set saga “Elza.” A Paris-raised university grad returns to her native isle to reconnect with the father she barely knew, and discovers an affluent family teeming with racism and corruption, mostly spawned by Daddy dearest. Suffused with buoyant, sunlit sensuality, like its free-flying heroine, “Elza” confounds logic while seducing the senses. But even Stana Roumillac’s radiantly sexy perf might not lure mass auds to the new Mist Harlem entertainment center, which preemed the Gallic meller Nov. 30.
Braving the strong objections of her mother (helmer-scripter Monpierre), Elza (Roumillac) arrives in Guadeloupe, stopping the cab to run into the ocean, ecstatic to be back in her home country. The illegitimate offspring (one of many) of factory owner M. Desire (Vincent Byrd Le Sage), she follows her father around, waiting for an opportunity to approach him. But the more she learns about the man, the less she finds to love. She snaps pictures as he sics cops and dogs on workers demanding to be paid or brushes off his family to dally with his mistress (Nancy Fleurival).
One of his legitimate daughters, Christine (Auriana Annonay), is selfish and frigid because, according to Desire’s wife (Sophie Berger), he never showed the girl affection. Christine is married to a philandering creep (Christophe Cherki) who tries to blackmail Elza into bed. The other legit daughter, Marie (Jihane Botreau-Roubel), is shut away in an asylum following her engagement to a dark-skinned worker (Teddy Doloir) whom her father manages to have jailed.
Elza takes advantage of a mix-up to snag the job of babysitter to Marie’s daughter, Caroline (Eva Constant), a supposedly disturbed child who will not speak. But she opens up to Elza’s mischievous charm. Soon the big girl and little girl — on a bike, at the beach or flying a bright-colored kite — happily bond all over the island.
Meanwhile Elza’s unrequited love for her father seems unaffected by revelations of his coldness and perfidy. Even his deliberately cruel rejection of her, claiming no one with such kinky hair could possibly be his daughter, cannot deter Elza; this level of obsessive blindness, coupled with a sunny openness to the nature around her, makes for a morally puzzling if otherwise attractive heroine.
All aspects of the production, particularly lensing, music and set design, brilliantly evoke the hues, textures, sounds and warmth of Guadeloupe.