The potentially lively yarn of costumer “The World Upside Down” is sent straight to Davy Jones’ Locker by dreary-looking TV-style direction and a chaotic, often ridiculous script. Story of an 18th century Breton woman who disguises herself as a man and signs on a ship to Marseilles looks to be headed on a fast voyage to Eurotube screens. “Cutthroat Island” had more going for it than this.
Pic was one of the closing night attractions at the Locarno festival, where it was the first Swiss competitor ever shown in the giant Piazza Grande open-air theater. After a rousing, patriotic welcome for the cast and crew, however, the film slowly died onscreen.
Despite (or because of) the combined labors of five scriptwriters, Swiss-Italian helmer Rolando Colla’s first feature never attains dramatic focus and seems perversely determined to avoid being either a sweeping romantic drama or, perish the thought, entertaining on any level. The only survivor of this cinematic shipwreck is French actress Laurence Cote, who gives a central performance of quiet, Bressonian dignity.
Cote is Anne, a 24-year-old villager in northern France who has a spot of rebellion in her and a love of life en nature. She’s stood up at the altar by the shepherd Yann (Denis Lavant, from Leos Carax’s “Lovers on the Bridge”) and promptly cuts her hair short, dons boy’s clothes and joins a ship that turns out to be captained by a randy dwarf (Jean-Claude Grenier).
Yann, it turns out, simply fell drunk down a well; mortified by his gaffe, he starts running — literally — south to Marseilles to hook up with Anne. She, meanwhile, has been found out by the captain and the ship’s doctor (Yann Collette), and jumps ship with a handsome Arab (Roschdy Zem) to escape the law. In Marseilles, she hides out with some hookers, one of whom (Sara Capretti) befriends the young “man” and becomes even friendlier when Anne reveals her true sex.
The film flirts with subjects such as transvestitism, lesbianism, oppression of women, religious-sexual fervor and so on, and from time to time even throws in brush-stroke animated sequences (by Gianluigi Toccafondo) to express Anne’s emotional situation at various points. The effect is simply to heighten the movie’s overweening pretension and lack of involving dramatic line.Lavant’s character is plain silly, and Grenier comes on like a refugee from a Borowczyk or Jeunet & Caro movie.
Lensing has a mostly dark, grubby look, and the OK but uninspiring music is based on gypsy and traditional tunes. Art direction and costuming are both excellent, however, with a realistic, lived-in feel.