In recent years the versatile Belgian actress Yolande Moreau has appeared in serious dramas (“Seraphine”) as well as absurdist comedies (“Louise Michel”), and these disparate impulses have been joined, but not successfully reconciled, in her first solo-directed feature, “Henri.” The titular central character never really comes into focus in this straightforward but uninvolving story of a newly widowed man who finds solace and friendship with a mentally impaired work assistant, a potentially groan-inducing premise that writer-director Moreau handles responsibly but none too memorably. Outside France, Belgium and a few other Euro territories, this Directors’ Fortnight closing entry will remain mostly festival fare.
A fiftysomething Italian native who runs a small cafe in the Belgian city of Charleroi, Henri (Pippo Delbono) falls into a major funk when his wife (Lio) falls ill and dies suddenly. With the restaurant falling into disarray, Henri’s daughter (Gwen Berrou) recommends that he take on a “white butterfly,” local parlance for residents of a nearby home for the mentally disabled, who often sign up for part-time work.
And so Henri meets Rosette (Candy Ming), a kind, open-hearted young woman whose impairment is not especially severe, enabling her to fit in well enough with Henri and his drinking buddies (Jackie Berroyer, Simon Andre). But Rosette yearns for the fulfillments of love and romance, and finding herself drawn to Henri, she makes an innocent remark about him that produces considerable turmoil, sending both characters on an alternately sweet and glum odyssey as they attempt to figure out what they each need and whether they can get it from each other. Unfortunately, their time of togetherness is far too overextended for the meager and predictable insights uncovered; this thin 107-minute dramedy would have done well to clock in under 90 minutes.
Moreau (who previously co-directed 2004’s “When the Sea Rises” with Gilles Porte) approaches Rosette’s character with sensitivity and restraint, focusing on Ming’s lovely performance to describe what this challenged but capable young woman is thinking or feeling at any given moment, often without the benefit of dialogue. There are some mildly uncomfortable moments when the film turns a lightly comic eye upon Rosette’s fellow residents, who at one point put on a sort of musical pageant for the locals, but Moreau’s sense of humor is genuinely affectionate, neither cruel nor patronizing.
Where “Henri” falters is with Henri, by all appearances a friendly, somewhat tubby and boisterous fellow who nonetheless feels under-conceived in the script and in Delbono’s rather blank performance. This despite the fact that Henri has any number of hobbies: He was once an award-winning racing cyclist (which leads to an obligatory trophy-shelf-smashing scene in which the character’s histrionic rage feels more willed than felt), and he keeps a coop full of homing pigeons. These birds and Rosette’s butterfly designation supply deliberate flight metaphors that are not particularly subtle in the way they suggest the freer, happier existence that Henri and Rosette both yearn for.
Packaging is satisfactory. Philippe Guilbert’s widescreen lensing achieves some nice, moody views of a slightly disheveled, underpopulated town and the lonely beach nearby; music is sparingly used.