Ponderous stillborn piffle masquerading as meaningful human drama, “Stolen Life” is a hollow exercise gussied up with striking imagery and two of France’s most bankable thirtysomething thesps. The story of the symbiotic relationship between two sisters who live together in a former rectory overlooking a graveyard, pic relies far too much on pregnant silences and hackneyed symbolism. D.p.-turned-helmer Yves Angelo’s third directing stint after “Colonel Chabert” and “Un air si pur” will travel the fest route on the strength of its cast, but viewers would be far more rewarded by going back to the Scandi classics than by giving this Bergman wannabe a spin.
After an aerial view of a craggy island, pic opens with Alda (Emmanuelle Beart), lit teacher at the local high school, explaining in voiceover that today , Sept. 3, is her birthday, but she has always been ambivalent about celebrating it because it’s the date on which a sister died the year after Alda was born.
Alda’s surviving older sister, Olga (Sandrine Bonnaire), and Olga’s 17 -year-old daughter, Sigga (Vahina Giocante), live with Alda in a presbytery with paintings and photos of stern deceased relatives on the walls. The house, which is much bigger on the outside than the inside we’re shown, has a graveyard for a front yard and is nearly on top of the unwelcoming shore. When they’re not stoically coping with their presumed inner turmoil, the sisters take turns staring out the windows at the harsh, slightly morbid landscape. Life. Death. Etc.
Upstairs after school, Alda exercises her prodigious libido with a succession of married men while downstairs Olga incubates a dark secret and weaves straw tchotchkes as Sigga does her homework. Olga does all the household chores and also likes to listen at Alda’s door as sounds of pleasure waft through. Outside, a bedraggled woman (Bulle Ogier) mumbles to herself in the cemetery.
What may have worked in novel form is almost completely uninteresting as adapted here to the screen. Proceedings often feel like chic but troubled Parisians have been grafted onto a rugged windswept isle by way of Dreyer and Bergman. A few indelible images from Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” shown to the school’s film club, only accentuate the wretched gap between luminous grab-’em-by-the-guts filmmaking and this tepid, rehashed facsimile.
As an ice maiden who racks up hollow sexual experiences and leaves all the emoting to her sister and niece, Alda — who defiantly treats men like paper plates — remains an enigma whose assumed emotional growth moves at a glacier’s pace. Olga suffers in silence. Sigga seems vivacious and normal, despite her creepy co-dependent role models.
In scenes that feel like the movie has morphed into a play, well-mannered shopkeeper Jakob (Andre Dussollier) comes to the house to collect Olga’s straw cradles and animals. He hates to see her all cooped up but that’s the way she wants it, since she’s harboring a dark secret and all.
Although lensing is attractive, the setting is oddly compartmentalized and never rings true. There are two burial scenes in the first reel alone, yet the little graveyard is sparsely populated with headstones. The island looks and feels small, yet the school’s corridors are as crowded as Beverly Hills High. And who could possibly be buying all those straw tchotchkes?
With little to distinguish it but one excellent sex scene, one good confessional speech and a worthy fantasy sequence, pic is stuck with filling an awful lot of screen time — over half of which is dialogue-free. “Stolen Life” is DOA.