Thoughtful, intelligent and classically beautiful, Raul Ruiz’s stately film adaptation of a 1949 novel by celebrated, and at times controversial, French writer Jean Giono presents a challenge for audiences unfamiliar with the novelist’s work. This story of a beautiful young peasant girl, living in Provence in the 1880s, is filled with ambiguities and little mysteries, and audiences may well find themselves unable to decipher the motives of the heroine. This will make for a very tricky marketing problem; film is many times more complex than the average 19th century saga of love and loss — outside France, or other Euro territories where arthouse audiences are likely to be comfortable with the storytelling, pic will probably not fare well. However, it deserves further festival exposure, and a dedicated distrib might be able to make it work with a niche audience.
The whole point of the film is to make the aud wonder about the motives of the central character, Therese, who is portrayed with exactly the right degree of mysteriousness by Laetitia Casta. Is Therese an innocent, a child-woman who likes to play with people but who is, at the same time, completely uncalculating? Or does she have a deliberate, and more sinister agenda?
“Savage Souls” is framed by scenes, set in 1945, in which a group of black-garbed women have gathered for a wake. One is Therese, and the other women quiz her about her past. She responds, quite willingly and at times bluntly, to the women’s questions, and, in flashback, her story unfolds.
In 1882, while working as a linen maid, she elopes with her lover, Firmin (Frederic Diefenthal). They travel to a nearby town, where Firmin finds work as a blacksmith and Therese is employed as maid in the local inn. She quickly observes that one of the most important people in the town is Mme. Numance (Arielle Dombasle), an elegant and genuinely kind woman who helps the poor.
Encouraging Firmin to make her pregnant, which causes her to lose her job, Therese ensures that she is seen every day by Mme. Numance. Inevitably, the woman offers to help her, offering Therese and Firmin a room in the Numance home where M. Numance (John Malkovich) appears to have a sexless relationship with his lovely wife.
In short time Therese, who has now married Firmin, becomes so close to Mme. Numance that they are almost like mother and daughter. The Numances’ pastor (Christian Vadim) warns Mme. Numance not to be too generous with Therese, suggesting that she is buying the girl’s love with her gifts. But Mme. Numance doesn’t heed the warning, admitting to Therese that “from now on, only you can cause me pain.”
This, Therese is about to do. Firmin has become involved in some shady dealings and, via Therese, borrows a very large sum of money from the Numances. As a result, the Numances are bankrupted, yet they seem strangely compliant just as Therese appears not to be too distressed at what has happened.
The ambiguity that envelops the central character makes “Savage Souls” an unsettling experience. Is she a loyal and trustworthy friend and companion, or is she so devious even her husband can’t divine the depths of her manipulations?
In her first major role, Casta (who was previously featured in the popular hit “Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar”) cleverly imbues these contrasting characters in her tantalizing character. Frequently eyeing herself in mirrors as if to try to divine her own character, she is both elusive and capricious.
Equally mysterious are the motivations of the Numances, as elegantly and stylishly played by Dombasle and Malkovich. Why do they so willingly fall into the trap?
Giono, whose novel “The Horsemen on the Roof” was successfully filmed in 1995, was accused of collaboration with the Germans during World War II; he wrote “Savage Souls” partly to demonstrate the power of slander and the impossibility of defining a single truth to any situation.
According to the film, the memories of witnesses and the baggage they bring to an event must be taken into account when trying to establish where the truth actually lies.
The author’s complex novel was adapted for the screen by four writers, among them Alexandre Astruc, who was originally set to direct the film. Astruc’s contribution to a very literary form of French cinema in the late ’50s and ’60s made him briefly a name to watch in French cinema. Chilean-born Ruiz who, for once, did not collaborate on the screenplay, has treated the material with style, respect and intelligence .
Eric Gautier’s crisp widescreen photography of Haut-Provence at various times of the year gives the film its very lush, handsome look, while the attractive music score, by Jorge Arriagada, livens the drama.
In a rather curious decision, Therese as an old woman is played both by Casta, in heavy makeup, and by veteran actress Monique Melinand.