For Sale

A compelling, nuanced portrait of a ferociously self-reliant young woman told in flashbacks as a private detective attempts to trace her whereabouts, "For Sale" pays off.

A compelling, nuanced portrait of a ferociously self-reliant young woman told in flashbacks as a private detective attempts to trace her whereabouts, “For Sale” pays off. Sandrine Kiberlain, who was also at the center of scripter-helmer Laetitia Masson’s deft first feature, “To Have (Or Not),” is aces as the enigmatic country girl turned city slicker who longs for something but never stays anywhere long. A solid arthouse contender, pic would be a feather in any festival’s cap.

When Marseilles health club and nightclub owner Pierre (Jean-Francois Stevenin) is left standing at the altar by his former employee France (Kiberlain), he sends his friend Luigi (Sergio Castellitto), a private investigator, to find her and bring her back. Although she stole a hunk of cash before she fled, Pierre remains smitten by the offbeat and secretive France, who’s a head taller and two decades younger than he. As Luigi pursues his assignment with single-minded devotion, we learn as much about him as we do about elusive France.

Luigi left his native Genoa to marry an attractive French lawyer (Mireille Perier) but is now divorced. Via the tape-recorded progress memos he makes throughout pic, we learn that the gloomy gumshoe hasn’t had sex or experienced a twinge of desire for more than two years.

His missing-person investigation spans a month. Luigi begins by interviewing France’s parents and fellow townsfolk in a small Champagne-region town, then moves on to her chagrined former boyfriend (Roschdy Zem) near Paris; a prostitute and single mom who befriended France (Chiara Mastroianni, in an excellent turn); a randy, duplicitous husband and his bourgeois wife, whose snazzy apartment the missing girl cleaned, and so on.

Luigi puts himself in France’s place, letting clues trigger flashbacks that gradually fill in the blanks, lending the narrative its pleasingly deconstructed flavor. Although Luigi and France’s parallel odysseys are far from a laugh riot, pic sports flashes of wry humor and sweetly paced dramatic tension. Skillfully limned encounters always ring true.

In tracing financial transfers and poking around Paris, Grenoble and Marseilles, Luigi learns that France did a lot of things to survive, including trade sex for money. She was a late bloomer who cultivated emotional armor. Leaving her parents’ farm without warning at age 26, France sent money home to reimburse the cost of her upkeep after age 18. A leggy, almost impossibly lanky former track star, France gravitated to cities with stadiums where she could run.

Luigi begins to wonder whether, if he finds France, he should drag her back to Pierre, or if is there’s a more fitting destiny for someone who, like Luigi himself, no longer harbors any illusions.

Carefully segmented editing brings the puzzle pieces of France’s and Luigi’s wounded personalities into gradual relief. Castellitto turns on a sort of pathetic charm that causes strangers to open up to his inquiries. Kiberlain’s range is impressive, and supporting players have all been chosen with care.

A coda lensed in New York on video and transferred to widescreen celluloid may strike some viewers as overkill, but elaborate, visually assured narrative wraps on a heart-tugging note.

Use of music is minimal but effective.

For Sale

  • Production: A Pyramide release of a Francois Cuel presentation of a Studio Canal Plus/La Sept Cinema/CLP co-production. (International sales: FPI/Pyramide, Paris.) Produced by Francois Cuel, Francois Marquis. Directed, written by Laetitia Masson.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Antoine Heberle; editor, Ailo Auguste; music, Siegfried; art director, Arnaud de Moleron; costume designer, Elisabeth Mehu; sound (Dolby), William Flageolet. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 16, 1998. Running time: 120 MIN.
  • With: France Robert - Sandrine Kiberlain Luigi Primo - Sergio Castellitto Pierre Lindien - Jean-Francois Stevenin Mireille - Chiara Mastroianni With: Aurore Clement, Mireille Perier, Roschdy Zem, Didier Flamand, Anh Duong
  • Music By: