An everything-but-the-kitchen-sink examination of marital fidelity vs. sexual temptation, Andrzej Zulawski’s flamboyant “Fidelity” is a frequently exhilarating, sometimes self-indulgent, visually accomplished and ultimately overlong showcase for helmer’s joint love of filmmaking and his leading lady. Updating a novel written more than 300 years ago, action-packed tale is set in contempo Paris and centers on a talented, self-sufficient woman who stubbornly chooses to honor her marital vows despite her ferocious attraction to a rival suitor. Given that the film offers 166 minutes of relentless content unfolding at a lively pace, international arthouse auds will more than get their money’s worth — if venturesome distribs decide there’s room for a French-lingo Sophie Marceau vehicle that’s not afraid to court ridicule in the search for emotional truth.
Pic harbors enough raw material for several seasons of a glossy soap opera. Pell-mell melding of nude hockey players, art photography, stolen organs, steamy sex, dirt-bike racing and the mercenary realm of a Murdoch-style media empire is contrasted with such lofty notions as publishing poetry in a world of money-grubbing philistines and dying of a broken heart.
With her ailing mother (Magali Noel) in tow, distinguished Canadian photographer Clelia (Marceau) journeys to Paris to work for press baron Rupert MacRoi (Michel Subor) whose scandal-mongering tabloid La Verite (The Truth) has offered her a juicy contract. While traveling through the Chunnel to France, Clelia’s mom, a former cabaret singer, alludes to a long-ago dalliance, implying that MacRoi may be Clelia’s biological father.In addition to her official assignments, Clelia takes snapshots wherever she goes. Drawn to a bouquet in a florist’s window, she meets gushing, bumbling Cleve (Pascal Greggory, in a touching 180 from his customary aloof and sullen characters). Cleve is about to marry MacRoi’s daughter in order to bring desperately needed capital into his family’s venerable publishing firm. After staring at each other for a few beats in public, flighty Cleve and assured Clelia are having good sex on his office couch.
Cleve says, “I publish a lot of children’s books — morality is important,” before being bustled off to a business meeting by one of his two brothers (Aurelien Recoing), a Catholic bishop who will later face problems with his vow of chastity.
Cleve’s love of Clelia scotches his wedding plans, although his ex-fiancee’s dad has already bought the book company. Just before Cleve and Clelia wed, she meets Nemo (Guillaume Canet), a dashing young photographer who greets her with, “I think your photos are merde because I think everything is merde and I want to sleep with you.” She marries Cleve anyway.
In the long, intense, unfailingly cinematic saga to follow, Clelia’s feelings rise and fall with the rapidity of the motor drive in her camera, but with far less precision. Zulawski is known for raging cinematic excess, yet there’s less excess than usual in this mile-a-minute update of the book considered to be France’s first serious historical novel.
Zulawski had already begun writing the script at Marceau’s suggestion (helmer and thesp have been a couple for nearly 15 years) when producer Paulo Branco approached Marceau to play the lead in Manoel de Oliveira’s “The Letter” (the 1999 film starred Chiara Mastroianni), also based on Madame de La Fayette’s 1678 novel “La Princesse de Cleves.” In a move tailor-made for trivia buffs, Branco opted to produce both films. (In 1961 Jean Delannoy directed a semi-faithful adaptation scripted by Jean Cocteau and starring Marina Vlady and Jean Marais.)
Stanley Kubrick chose to examine faithful monogamy vs. sexual temptation in “Eyes Wide Shut,” and there’s something equally old-fashioned yet aggressively contemporary about Clelia’s stance: Once she marries Cleve she draws the line — she will remain faithful on principle, however much she aches to consummate her attraction to Nemo.
Zulawski piles on the literal and figurative meditations. His formal compositions and raving, roving camera reinforce the sensation of barely controlled chaos in the lives of people struggling to be creative while making every minute count.
Imperious and sophisticated yet girlish and tortured, Marceau, who obligingly wears clingy slips around the house in the dead of winter, gives her best perf since her mature English-language turn in “Firelight.” As the husband who assumes his wife has been unfaithful, Greggory is aces. Canet’s perf is slightly wobbly but sufficiently convincing for the overwrought material. Vet thesp Edith Scob is both outlandish and hilarious as Diane, the crude, haughty and forever drunk editor-in-chief of La Verite, who has been sexually servicing MacRoi in her spare time for decades, sometimes with coke-addicted Mrs. MacRoi looking on.
Comparatively sedate score consists of appealing piano solos and a smattering of driving rock.