Another bleak depiction of French family life from director Sandrine Veysset, whose first feature, “Will It Snow for Christmas,” was launched at the Cannes Directors Fortnight in 1996 and went on to theatrical release in some territories despite its downbeat portrait of an impoverished woman and her brood of children. “Martha … Martha” is equally well-crafted and impeccably acted, but this time the demons driving the eponymous protagonist are needlessly elliptical, resulting in a slight loss of empathy, despite the undoubted talent on display. A tough sell in art houses is indicated.
Martha, beautifully played by Valerie Donzelli, is an unstable young woman given to fits of depression. She is clearly not the ideal mother for 6-year-old Lise (Lucie Regnier) who may (or may not) be the daughter of her loyal, long-suffering partner, Reymond (Yann Goven).
Reymond makes a precarious income from selling secondhand clothes at open-air markets, and they live in spartan but acceptable premises, with the landlord breathing down their necks.
Martha, who smokes and drinks too much, and who often leaves Reymond and Lise at night to drink in bars and flirt with men, is haunted by an unspecified tragedy from her past, possibly involving the death of her brother.
In the opening sequence, she pays a visit to her parents and gets a chilly reception, with her careworn mother mistaking her for her sister Marie, who is married and lives in Spain. Martha hasn’t even told her mom and dad that she has a daughter.
When, on a whim, Martha drags her family off to see Marie (Lydia Andrei) and her husband Juan (Javier Cruz), it’s an uneasy visit. Marie is clearly not pleased to be reunited with her sister who, she claims, has caused enough trouble already. We never know exactly what trouble Martha caused, and something more of a hint might have been helpful in understanding the character’s motivations.
The visit ends in a family squabble as Martha behaves appallingly at a restaurant, humiliating her sister and Juan. The trio return to France, where Martha disappears for a while after being raped by a couple of men who picked her up in a bar.
Martha’s disturbed nature is contrasted with the steady strength of Reymond, who is patient with her but clearly worried that she’ll do something terrible to herself or to Lise. Since Martha likes to tell a story about a woman who suicides with her twin children (Marie is the mother of twin boys) this isn’t such a fanciful suggestion.
Donzelli is effective despite the thinly motivated character she’s playing, while Goven is fine as the long-suffering Reymond. Little Regnier steals the film, however, with a beguiling performance as the older-than-her-years child who adores her parents but whose childhood is, indeed, a scary and unstable one. This point is emphasized by a spooky scene in which the child has a nightmare about death, and a sequence in a karaoke bar in which the Spanish song, “Porque Te Vas,” used by Carlos Saura in “Cria” (1974) evokes another pic about the traumas of childhood.
Technical credits are on the button.