In “Une Femme Douce,” Robert Bresson transplanted Dostoyevksy’s “A Gentle Creature” from Moscow to Paris. In “The Shade,” first-time French helmer Raphael Nadjari moves the same dour study of destiny and suicide to present-day Manhattan. Result plays a bit like a top-quality student film. Studied and slight, but impressively crafted, it should serve Nadjari well as a professional calling card, while also winning friends on the fest circuit. Commercial prospects are likely to be slim outside France (though pic is in English, it still has the bonafides and air of a French art film).
Tale opens with bereft Simon (Richard Edson) grieving over the body of his wife Anna (Lorie Marino). Action then flashes back to chronicle the course of their relationship.
A pawnbroker in Spanish Harlem, Simon leads a crimped, suspicious existence. One day, Anna comes in to pawn some jewelry and he is struck by her combination of mystery and barely veiled desperation. She returns with more heirlooms and the attraction soon becomes mutual and serious. After very little time getting acquainted, Simon impulsively proposes marriage.
From the time she accepts, events follow a downward course. When Anna tries to work alongside him and gets things wrong, Simon lashes out in fury. He has always projected his unhappiness outward, it seems, and her presence doesn’t change that. But Anna also seems dragged down by her own enigmatic troubles, which eventually cause her to pick up a gun and turn it on herself.
Pic’s visual handling, including Laurent Brunet’s muted lensing, proves adept and thoughtfully nuanced. Its portrayal of New York, though, may well convince French viewers but lacks the fine detail that would spell authenticity to Americans.
Characters and perfs reflect this slight vagueness. Richard Edson does sharp, expert work as Simon, but the character’s Jewishness comes off as nominal rather than palpable, and his mom (miscast Barbara Haas) might as well be Presbyterian. Also miscast, Marino performs capably but is too solid and normal-seeming to convey Anna’s ethereal angst (Dominique Sanda launched her career playing the same role in Bresson’s film), which is crucial to the tale’s impact.