Fans of cerebral French helmer Jacques Doillon will adore “Germaine and Benjamin,” a splendid dramatization of the historic love affair between Franco-Swiss author and statesman Benjamin Constant and the brilliant Madame de Stael. A discursive talkfest rolling over two hours, pic is aimed squarely at arthouse regulars who are willing to read non-stop subtitles and revel in the subtle S&M games couples played in Napoleon’s day.
Pic has a technical claim to fame: It’s the first feature shot entirely in high-definition digital video, then transferred to 35mm. The vid tapings allowed Doillon and cinematographer William Lubtchansky to indulge in extraordinarily lengthy takes that give the film a distinctive, rather theatrical style.
The technique’s touted ability to offer great depth of field without much lighting may be debated, since most scenes indoors are shallow two-shots. But the overall beauty of the lensing will convert many skeptics to the esthetic possibilities of video. Production manager Serge Roux says the process was cheaper than shooting in 35mm.
Constant (Benoit Regent) and Germaine de Stael (Anne Brochet) began their tempestuous liaison in 1794. There are no bedroom scenes in pic, but there is much passion, tears and theorizing about love. Doillon emphasizes both de Stahl’s brilliant, febrile mind and the dominating influence she exerted over those around her, first of all Constant. She pushed him into a political career after the French Revolution, and later urged him to have the courage of his convictions and publish her own anti-Napoleon book.
The characters change costume but don’t age. After nearly 20 years, they meet for the last time. Constant has remarried, de Stahl’s children are grown, but they’re still emotionally involved in a masochistic love-hate relationship that has nowhere to go but in circles.
Brochet is riveting as the impetuous, selfishand emotional Germaine, upstaging even Regent’s strongly likable, modern Constant. The chemistry between the two thesps is a pleasure, even when the characters’ emotional life becomes repetitive.
Most scenes are variations on the two lovers closeted together in richly decorated Empire interiors, Brochet in eye-catching gowns and turbans, the less secure Regent figuratively at her feet. Jean-Francois Goyet’s dialogue is sophisticated, often impassioned, and barely pauses for an embrace.