In “Lisa,” an achingly sincere drama distinguished by excellent perfs, a budding filmmaker gets more than he bargained for while researching the career of a minor French screen actor who vanished during WWII. Freighted with the best kind of nostalgia and marred only by a TVish look in some stretches, the proudly sentimental tale manages to put a surprisingly fresh spin on young love, the magic of the movies, the divisive horrors of war and the courage of conviction. Jewish fests are a given and arthouse runs a strong possibility for this old-fashioned, satisfyingly melancholy venture.
Heartfelt effort features a lovely turn by Jeanne Moreau, in the company of several of Gaul’s best rising thesps, including Benoit Magimel who just pocketed a best actor award at Cannes for “The Piano Teacher.” Though freely adapted from a novel, story is in great part autobiographical for Pierre Grimblat, who returns to helming after a successful career as a TV producer.
Sam (Benoit Magimel) loves the cinema but is a little baffled by his parents (Michel Jonasz, Denise Chalem), who seem to be keeping a secret or two from him, their only son. Intrigued by the screen presence of Sylvain Marceau (Sagamore Stevenin), a young actor who appeared briefly in the uncompleted 1939 film “Princess Marushka” and was never heard of again, Sam tracks down Lisa Morain (Moreau), whose name figures on a production still with Sylvain.
Armed with a 16mm camera and the now-or-never desire to make a documentary, Sam convinces the mysterious Lisa to recount the story of her undying passion for the young stuntman whose career was cut short by the war. Lisa (played at age 22 by Marion Cotillard) was a tuberculosis patient at a sanitarium in the French Alps when she met and fell for the fearless, funny Sylvain, a young Jew.
As Sam gets to the bottom of what became of Sylvain, he also finds out more than he ever suspected about his own roots. Pic toggles back and forth between the elderly Lisa’s interactions with Sam and flashbacks to the vivid adventures of her youth.
Lisa and Sylvain’s intense affair is sweetly depicted against a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism and imminent war, both of which they’re almost oblivious to, as they’re so much in love. “Princess Marushka” — affectionately portrayed as a stiff costumer, with Marisa Berenson in the lead — is halted 10 days short of its wrap when war is declared.
Circumstances turn Lisa’s best friend and fellow patient, Henriette (Julia Vaidis-Bogard), into a collaborator as surely as they inspire Lisa to brave acts of resistance. Narrative makes full use of the fact that sanitaria were a good place to hide because the Nazis wouldn’t risk contagion.
Pic is a memory piece, drawn from the same well Louis Malle tapped in “Au revoir les enfants,” but from the vantage point of young adults rather than schoolchildren. Beyond its delvings into what constitutes Jewish identity, pic neatly portrays the matter-of-fact manner in which anti-Semitic feelings caught on in some quarters and were considered appalling in others.
Stevenin — back to his lively, charismatic self after playing a glacially self-involved model in Catherine Breillat’s “Romance” — does a peppy riff on Errol Flynn. Magimel gives a sensitive perf opposite the quietly wrenching Moreau, and Cotillard, who was underused in the massively popular “Taxi” pics, is a real find as the young Lisa. Singer-songwriter Jonasz is simply superb in the role of Sam’s father.