Gallic helmer Jean-Pierre Ameris essays a child’s-eye point of view in this atmospheric drama set in an old manor house adjacent to a mental hospital in 1960s France. Thesped with limpid intensity by Alba Gaia Kraghede Bellugi as a 10-year-old girl lost in an uncertain world, “Call Me Elizabeth” traces a slow, fragile process of empowerment. Falling outside the certifiably safe norms of American kiddie fare (despite inclusion in the always-adventurous New York Intl. Children’s Film Festival), pic’s lyrical, child-friendly virtues may still prove too slight for adult arthouse auds.
Elizabeth’s parents are on the verge of splitting up: Her artistic mother (a harried but appealing Maria de Medeiros) only sporadically checks in at home for the sake of her child, while her rationalist father (Stephane Freiss) is barely holding it all together. At school, her naivete makes her the butt of everyone’s jokes; even the birthmark-scarred boy whom she alone befriends eventually betrays her trust for the approval of his peers.
Left to her own devices while her father runs the next-door insane asylum, Elizabeth finds her only steady source of affection in housekeeper Rose (Yolande Moreau), a war-traumatized mute who scuttles back to the hospital at night.
Elizabeth’s already overactive imagination — deprived of the pragmatic balance provided by her sister and confidante, who has gone away to boarding school — begins to paint her world in nightmare shades as attic doors creak open of their own accord; whispered parental discord reverberates through the house; a hulking, brutish dogcatcher threatens to kill a beloved stray; and tales of her grandmother’s suicide replace more comfortable family myths. Feeling her options slipping away, Elizabeth even contemplates some wrist-slitting of her own by the mystical light of the moon.
Director Ameris never resorts to hokey hallucination or exaggerated effects to capture Elizabeth’s vulnerability, using plays of light and shadow and Bellugi’s solemnly expressive face to indelibly evoke childhood terrors.
Ultimately, Elizabeth is saved by her very oversensitivity, finding strength in caring for those even more frightened and defenseless than herself. She “liberates” a mutt from the pound and befriends a suicidal young asylum escapee, Yvon (Benjamin Ramon), hiding him from her father and the authorities and taking a proprietary interest in his welfare.
In adapting New Wave icon Anne Wiazemsky’s novel, Ameris has been careful to erase even the slightest hint of “inappropriate” sensuality, regressing the book’s 12-year-old heroine by a couple years and rendering Yvon a Pierrot-like figure who is terrified of his own shadow. In place of the vague, ambivalent sexuality of prepubescence, Ameris opts for a fairy-tale sense of wonderment as girl, lunatic and dog trek through the moonlit countryside under a canopy of f/x-enhanced stars.
Tech credits are fine, though Philippe Sarde’s score tends toward the saccharine at upbeat moments.