Skillful time shuffling and a compelling performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg anchor this flawed but fascinating cross-cultural drama.
Indian mysticism takes a decidedly Gallic turn in writer-director Michel Spinosa’s “His Wife.” A man (Yves Attal) whose significant other has disappeared discovers that she died in India, where her spirit has possessed a younger woman. Although the film unfolds from the husband’s p.o.v., as the title suggests, its skillful time shuffling and the compelling presence of Charlotte Gainsbourg (Attal’s real-life spouse) assures equal representation, the wife’s identity gaining in autonomy as her husband is told her full story from beyond the grave. More interesting than fully successful, “His Wife,” unlike its protagonists, may never venture far from home.
Before she agrees to marry him, Catherine (Gainsbourg) takes Joseph (Attal) to what turns out to be a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, where she indirectly reveals to him her heroin addiction, now under control with a prescription opiate. Predictably for this rather cold, rational veterinarian, Joseph’s acceptance of his wife’s dependency proves anything but wholehearted. Spinosa presents Catherine’s subsequent mysterious disappearance before revealing its probable cause in flashback: Joseph blames her addiction for the stillbirth of their baby, despite doctors’ explanations to the contrary.
In India, Joseph discovers, via flashbacks, Catherine’s alternate existence as a much-beloved teacher, as well as the ordeal of her close colleague Gracie (Tamil actress Janagi), who became possessed on her wedding night, presumably by Catherine’s “pey,” or evil spirit. Joseph then visits Gracie in the church/sanitarium where she and her fellow sufferers are kept outside, fed and tended to by relatives or charitable caregivers, while shackles on their feet keep them from running amok or away.
Surprisingly, thanks in large part to Gainsbourg’s almost tangible immediacy (one can easily understand Lars von Trier’s fascination with her) and Janagi’s seamless back-and-forth transitions between sanity and possession, the India scenes play all the more fluidly for their chronological fragmentation. When the mystery of Catherine’s death is finally explained in a long sequence recounting her final night, the film’s various loose ends weave together intriguingly.
Yet if the deconstructed plot finally forms a satisfyingly coherent narrative, other elements come together less felicitously. Attal has the French fish-out-of-water paradigm down pat, but his gradual embrace of the mystical Indian ethos, and his newfound openness to those around him, feel unconvincing. Though Spinosa proposes Indian resolutions to French problems, his aesthetic separates the two extremes too radically; thus, the kinetic tension that sparks between Joseph and Catherine in their infrequent, highly charged scenes together finds few echoes in Joseph’s interactions with Gracie, or in Gracie’s relationship with hubby-to-be Anthony (Mahesh). Meanwhile, any commonalities between Catherine’s addiction and Gracie’s possession remain completely untapped.
The exotic Indian locales prove as visually rich as the snowy French countryside, courtesy of Rakesh Haridas’ warmly atmospheric lensing. Whatever its bumps on the road to transcendence, “His Wife” deeply embeds itself in a magnetic sense of place that mirrors its complementary spouses.