Producer Ismail Merchant’s second outing as a director, “The Proprietor,” proves to be a step backward artistically from his debut, “In Custody.” The ambitious memory tale skips through five decades of a noted French author’s life and fails to wrestle her demons to the ground. Unsatisfying dramatically, pic lacks even the passing pleasures of a historical parade, exotic locales or outsize performances from a stellar cast. The film is a curiosity piece destined for theatrical limbo after initial playdates, and marginal ancillary activity.
Yarn centers on Adrienne Mark (Jeanne Moreau), whose sexy 1950s memoir “Je m’appelle France” was the basis for a seminal New Wave movie and a hit American remake. Long resident in New York City, she’s drawn back to her homeland when her childhood apartment is put on the auction block.
Mark (aka Markovsky) has been struggling for years with the haunting recollection of her mother being carted away by the Nazis. But curiously for a writer, there’s no indication she’s ever attempted to purge that ghost on paper. Nonetheless, she’s hellbent on acquiring the property that holds some key to the past and, toward that end, proceeds to sell all her worldly possessions.
The screenplay by Jean-Marie Besset and George Trow would suggest that the scripters are mystified by their protagonist’s pursuit. The tale is constantly side-tracked by secondary stories that range from a young man’s (Josh Hamilton) infatuation with the literary lioness to a vulgar film producer’s (Sean Young) Zeal to do a remake of Mark’s most famous work. Rather than zero in on the character’s turmoil, the writers are distracted by background details — there’s scant sense of a dramatic arc in the piece.
Merchant further erodes the core by indulging his actors’ worst excesses. Judging by the work of such gifted performers as Sam Waterston and Nell Carter, the director’s idea of fine acting is big and broad. Young’s naturally audacious style works just fine in the ensemble.
Moreau’s serene persona and consummate professionalism weather most of the picture’s storms, but she cannot overcome the harsh, unattractive lighting of the piece.
There’s the germ of a moving, potent story in “The Proprietor.” That promise, however, is squandered in Merchant’s hands, which is certain to be reflected in critical and commercial response. Still, if the verdict on such egregious moviemaking crimes is a B.O. shutout, it seems too light a sentence.