Visually seductive but unable to communicate true passion, “Une Femme Francaise” is an ice queen among Gallic mellers. A strikingly crafted, often highly stylized portrait of one woman’s emotional folderols across 15 years, Regis Wargnier’s $ 15 million pic — the first stab by French major UGC at hands-on production — looks set for an uphill career offshore, especially in markets less receptive to such Gallic tales of the heart.
Much of the same emotional distance was evident in Wargnier’s previous big-budgeter, “Indochine,” but the sweep of the narrative, the “exotic” setting and use of landscape were sizable compensations. Though equally exquisitely mounted, “Femme” is mostly French-set, features a more fractured, repetitive narrative and lacks the vast physical canvas on which the previous pic’s emotions were writ large.
Still, for those able to make the stretch and accept the film on its own terms, it’s a painless slice of handsome moviemaking that offers goodly guilty pleasures: Emmanuelle Beart has never looked lovelier; Francois Catonne’s lensing is a symphony of color, light and shade; Patrick Doyle’s churning orchestral score is a further feather in his cap; the ’40s/’50s costuming and production design are consistently eye-catching. Genevieve Winding’s pinpoint editing brings the whole shebang in at a trim 97 minutes.
Story kicks off in 1939, with the double wedding of Jeanne (Beart) to professional soldier Louis (Daniel Auteuil), and Jeanne’s sister, Helene (Laurence Masliah), to Louis’ brother, Marc (Jean-Noel Broute). The marriages seem blighted from the outset, with the brothers’ father suffering a heart attack just before the ceremony.
Story jumps straight to 1944, with a POW visiting Jeanne to tell her Louis is still alive and then confess his love for Jeanne. When Louis returns, he offers Jeanne her freedom, but she tearfully elects to stay with him. Soon after, she gives birth to twins, whom she swears are Louis’. He’s not so sure.
Rest of the pic is basically a rondo built on the theme of betrayal, regret and reunion, with Jeanne driven by unknown demons to repeatedly betray Louis during his absences and Louis the straight-arrow, somewhat stuffy husband to whom concepts like duty, honor and family are everything.
Story moves to ruined, postwar Berlin, and Jeanne later starts an on-off affair with Mathias (Austrian thesp Gabriel Barylli) that roller-coasters from Nancy to Paris to Syria and back again.
Auds looking for a five-course feast of Gallic amour fou will need to eat before entering the theater. Pic’s jump structure slices the story into a series of bite-sized nibbles in which emotions are laid out with no preamble and briefly played at full tilt.
The POW starts stroking Jeanne’s thigh seconds after meeting her; Jeanne and Mathias make strenuous love while her young son cries out in another room; Louis and Mathias tussle in the scenic Roman colonnade in Syria; and Jeanne dresses in a scarlet gown and twirls drunkenly before Mathias. You get the picture.
These emotional snapshots are complemented by several striking sequences in which music, photography and editing replace words such as a “Madame Bovary”-like waltz in Berlin in which Jeanne is emotionally swept away, and a trip to the circus in which her giddiness watching some aerialists reveals her feelings to the watchful Louis.
However striking its individual sequences, though, the film still has a hollow center, a lack of any larger arc, even for those who buy into Wargnier’s stylized, self-conscious approach. Described by the helmer as a classic tragedy in five acts, a story that parallels Jeanne’s emotional vacillations with France’s muddled foreign exploits of the period (World War II, postwar Germany, Indochina, Algeria), it’s nothing of the sort, largely because of the script’s lack of depth in the main characters.
At heart, it’s a film a clef — a cinematic notebook based on Wargnier’s memories of his own mother that’s hardly accessible to outsiders. Though the eyes and ears are engaged, the heart remains stubbornly uninvolved.
Looking as if she’s just stepped off a catwalk, and often with a vacant expression to match, Beart hardly gets close to a genuine emotion. Auteuil, in a constricted role, occasionally touches the core of Louis’ wounded nobility. Barylli is bland.
Supports generally fare better, with Broute good as Louis’ brother and Jean-Claude Brialy adding some class as Louis’ superior. Other members of Jeanne’s family are OK but never clearly distinguished.
Tech credits, as noted, are sumptuous, with a digital soundtrack that’s sharp and immediate.