Fans of Valerie Donzelli’s of-the-moment Gallic boho spirit may be surprised by “Marguerite & Julien,” her experiment with semi-historical incest, but as the actress-helmer herself admits, she goes for love stories driven by passion over reason. Something certainly overcame her reason, as the film is a painfully silly, laughably naive Romance with a capital “R,” loosely based on the experience of a brother and sister executed in 1603 — and, probably more tangentially, an unrealized script Jean Gruault wrote for Truffaut in 1973. Awash in cheesy directorial embellishments and lacking any reason why audiences should care about these two “rebels,” the drama nabbed a Cannes competition berth but is unlikely to see much biz outside French borders.
Donzelli isn’t interested in verisimilitude, and the production deliberately blends historical periods in art direction, costume design and music (and oh, there’s lots of music). The most interesting element is the way the script, which she wrote with regular collaborator-thesp Jeremie Elkaim, conceives of the story as a kind of children’s fairy tale recounted by a junior supervisor (Esther Garrel) in an orphanage: Told to captivate the children’s imagination, the narrative is spun as if inspired by Sleeping Beauty, only the aristocratic lovers are siblings and there’s no happy ending. It might have worked as a concept, yet Donzelli’s take is so precious, the cliches so overstated, that nothing can be taken seriously.
From childhood, there’s something unnatural in the bond between Marguerite and Julien de Ravelet — in case auds weren’t quite sure, a scene on runaway horses drives home the unbridled sexual current stirring between the two. Finally their father’s uncle, the Abbe de Hambye (Sami Frey), insists they be separated, and Julien is squired away to boarding school with his older brother, Philippe. When Julien (Elkaim) and Philippe (Bastien Bouillon) finally return, Marguerite (Anais Demoustier, “The French Minister”) is considered an old maid for turning down every eligible bachelor in Normandy.
Marguerite’s unquenchable passion breaks down Julien’s initial resistance, much to the family’s horror — the camera unsubtly zooms in on Marguerite’s hickey after the siblings are caught petting. Their father, Jean (Frederic Pierrot), and mother, Madeleine (Aurelia Petit), marry her off to old tax collector Lefebvre (Raoul Fernandez), but she refuses conjugal access and in frustration he turns to dissolute whoring.
Poor Marguerite, a prisoner in her red robe (or perhaps that’s the sole item in her closet), pines for Julien, passing notes via various go-betweens until finally Julien rescues her and they consummate their love, even convincing Maman that no one can stand in the way of true ardor. Escape is necessary, since Lefebvre is prosecuting the illicit couple. As they pause in a forest, their faces bathed in golden light, Marguerite puerilely works out that Julien will be both father and uncle to their child, and she’ll be mother and aunt, which makes any further offspring siblings and cousins … Makes the head spin, doesn’t it?
Twice, in speaking of Marguerite, it’s said, “Her melancholy grace was charming,” yet few will find her wide-eyed doll-like presence especially charismatic, while Julien’s tightened intensity is equally unlikely to attract champions. Fans of Donzelli’s work looking for the kinds of endearing, quirky characters from “Queen of Hearts” or “Hand in Hand” are likely to have difficulty finding personality traits to latch on to, and while the fairy tale she brought to the latter pic had a certain inventive freshness, here the overriding bedtime-story element is merely cloying (and that’s before the rainbow appears).
Both leads are beautifully photographed, Demoustier’s porcelain features forming a contrast to Elkaim’s sculpted head, which is lit to make the most of his prominent cheekbones and pronounced jawline. In contrast, Geraldine Chaplin, in a small role as Lefebvre’s overbearing materfamilias, looks every inch the stereotype of a nasty stepmother.
Perhaps since this is the first Donzelli film without any autobiographical elements, the helmer chose a filmmaking style far more self-conscious than usual. Iris shots in and out, zooms, slow-mo and frozen figures that suddenly come alive: She’s certainly influenced by the way fairy tales are often brought to the screen, but what do these attention-getting stylizations bring to an incest drama? The mind boggles thinking what Truffaut was planning on doing with this material. Interiors were shot on film, exteriors on digital, and while the contrast could be sharper, the noticeable softness to the celluloid segments further cast the story in a childlike glow. Music is used in an egregiously profligate way, each passage reaching a wearying climax, though there’s something inanely playful about the use of the Stranglers’ spoken song “Midnight Summer Dream.”