In her first stint behind the lens, French actress Zabou Breitman takes serious material and spins a touching, funny, wonderfully played love story in “Beautiful Memories,” set in a home for amnesiacs. An ensemble cast, topped by Isabelle Carre and Bernard Campan as the two afflicted partners, keeps the fragile material fresh and engaging, though the movie’s discreet charms will make this a difficult sell offshore. However, more festival exposure is undoubtedly indicated.
Quirkily comic tone is set from the start as Claire (Carre), under the guidance of her elder sister, checks into a rural memory-loss clinic charmingly called “The Squirrels.” Claire, a shy, slightly mousy blonde in her early 30s, has been having difficulty understanding the meaning of certain words ever since she was struck by lightning in a forest — and, besides, she’s extra worried because her mother died of Alzheimer’s.
Claire’s first interview with the clinic’s slightly eccentric but straight-talking head, Christian (Bernard Le Coq), signals the movie’s unsentimental approach, reinforced as the other patients are introduced. A large house, with a canteen and bar, the clinic is more like a country retreat with off-center guests, and at the start Claire is more an observer of events, which include Christian’s affair with Marie (Breitman), one of the staff.
Film progresses in small, sketch-like sections: an old Jewish guy thinks he recognizes a girl from his youth and a memory flashback, set to some guitar playing, shows their meeting in concentration camp clothes. One of the patients is Philippe (Campan), a wine connoisseur who’s desperately trying to keep ahold of his skills, and when Claire moves into the clinic the two start sleeping together.
Finally, the two move into an apartment and try to live a normal life. Philippe, the more together of the pair, leaves aide-memoire stickers all around the place as Claire becomes increasingly forgetful but refuses to give in to her malady.
Magic of the picture is that it maintains the character comedy even as the central story takes on a patina of tragedy, with Ferenc Javori’s kletzmer-flavored music and the sense of ensemble among the cast maintaining a warm mood. Dressed down in frumpish clothes, Carre is impressive in a tightly-wound perf as Claire, communicating the sheer physical effort her character sometimes needs to form words. Campan contribs subtle support as Philippe, who has problems of his own, including nightmares, but can see his beloved becoming gradually worse.
Though largely shot and cut in a simple, unflashy style, the film inserts occasional visual felicities that catch the moment: some sensuous play with Claire’s hair as Philippe makes overtures of friendship, or careful composition that reveals extra details within the frame. Final reels, as Claire slowly retreats into her out-of-synch world, have a more autumnal look, with no strong colors.