When a road movie comes along that makes auds happy to join the trip, it’s a cause for celebration, and “Tenderness” deserves celebrating. After a string of solid yet uninvolving films, Marion Hansel has written and directed a work of rich emotion and light drama, crafting a family tale that treats viewers and protags like adults. Justly titled, this story of a divorced couple bringing their son home following a minor ski accident has nothing theatrical about it, just believable characters caring for one another, beautifully communicated onscreen. Art cinemas should take note.
Advance critical support will be essential to international play since “Tenderness” lacks the kind of attention-grabbing story elements generally required to break into offshore markets. Instead, there’s realistic dialogue, genuine emotion, and by golly, people who respect and love one another, notwithstanding a broken marriage. Hansel proves it can be done.
Opening images immediately hold attention with stunning long shots of pristine snow-covered hills and two figures on skis gracefully describing curves, the only sound the gentle swoosh on the glistening white powder. Then Jack (Adrien Jolivet) crashes and g.f. Alison (Margaux Chatelier) phones for help. It’s a normal ski accident, resulting in a broken leg, and it’s the end of the season anyway. But Jack lives in Belgium, and the resort is in France, so mom Lisa (Marilyne Canto, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”) and dad Frans (Olivier Gourmet) have to drive down, pick him up, and take him and his car back home.
Lisa and Frans divorced 15 years earlier, and while they’ve obviously come together during Jack’s upbringing, they’ve not spent much time alone with one another since the breakup. Lisa is absent-minded and lacks common sense (she’s a bit of a slob); Frans is remarried and far more precise about things. These personality differences lead to mild verbal jabs as they drive down to the French Alps, yet what comes through beautifully is the fact that, despite the divorce, these two still care for one another. Not that they’ll get back together — no one will entertain the idea — but this is that rare movie acknowledging a past where bitterness has been set aside and the memory of why love developed at the start isn’t forgotten.
In the end, “Tenderness” is all about love: in the past (Lisa and Frans); in the present (Jack and Alison); and even the possibility of love in the future, when Lisa picks up hitchhiker fisherman Leo (Sergi Lopez) on the trip home and he leaves a note of gentlemanly appreciation. Hansel’s script, one of the few she’s written from an original idea, brims with the understated, and her superb actors make the most of their characters, not only with words but gestures, glances and half-smiles. Clearly they enjoy working together as much as viewers enjoy their company.
Scope may seem an odd choice for such an intimate story, yet the format avoids an inappropriate claustrophobia often associated with car journeys. Like the themes themselves, lensing is untheatrical, respectful and deeply satisfying. The film’s title comes from Bourvil’s song “La tendresse”: “Without tenderness / love would be nothing.”