Dour and somewhat dramatically parched, Christine Carriere’s third feature focuses on a plump, abused farmer’s daughter-turned-trucker’s wife who never, ever gets an even break. In contrast to Carriere’s seriocomic debut, 1999’s “Who Plucked the Feathers Off the Moon?”, “Darling” verges on unintentional black comedy as the protagonist’s troubles heap up, playing like an unending song of woe. Marina Fois, in a superb, unvarnished Cesar-nommed perf, and Guillaume Canet as her bad hubby hoist the film to halfway tolerable, but pic still has problems. After November release in Gaul, Gaumont faces a tough sell abroad.
Based on Jean Teule’s book (in turn based on a true story, noted in closing credits), the tale is perhaps best viewed as a cautionary fable for anyone who decides not to go to school and instead marries stupidly. But poor little Catherine (Oceane Decaudain) can’t help who her parents are: unloving, semi-beastly mother Suzanne (Anne Benoit) and father Georges (Marc Brunet), who come off as gross stereotypes, undistinguishable from one another in their sheer repulsiveness.
Fat and obnoxious herself, Catherine hates her family (though not brothers Joseph and Henri) and her life, and can’t wait to get away, swearing to herself in a repeated oath, “I will never be a farmer’s wife.”
Fois’ adult Catherine narrates her childhood state of mind in excessive voiceover, romanticizing the open road just beyond the family farm and the passing truckers. Carriere envisions this in a repeated motif of Catherine trudging along the side of the highway.
Grown-up Catherine, still stuck on the farm but at least with one friend in sweet-natured baker Madame Clement (Sissi Dupare, just about the only decent human being in the film), fends off the advances of farmer boy Vincent (Herve Lassince). Learning about CB radios, Catherine adopts “Darling” as her handle, and it’s not too long before she gets frisky with big-wheeler stud Joel (Canet). Wedding bells and then brutal abuse soon follow.
Despite the story’s grounding in truth, Catherine’s tough character throws up too many dramatic obstacles for auds to fully sympathize with her or ponder her with fascination (unlike, say, some of August Strindberg’s more disagreeable but always engrossing marrieds). This presents Fois with a challenge she turns to her advantage: Though never a woman one might want to hang out with, her Catherine eventually becomes tragic in her own right, a victim of emotional and physical bullying who refuses to die even as her life grows worse.
For whatever reason, Carriere opts not to take the path of a Bruno Dumont (who would have found natural soil in Teule’s story) and actually show the physical realities of Catherine’s horrific situation, which include humiliating forms of torture. Instead, they’re described in dialogue or narration, which blunts their impact.
The cast is directed to project generally crude and unsympathetic portrayals, which are matched by a filmmaking package (especially in Gordon Spooner’s coolish lensing) designed to examine Catherine’s predicament rather than draw out strong emotions.