Beloved French actress Fanny Ardant broadens her professional credits with writing and helming debut “Ashes and Blood.” Strained result indicates she should stick to her day job. A heavy-handed melodrama, period pic is set mostly in an unspecified Eastern European country where the women over-apply their eyeliner and the belligerent men are ever-ready to fight. Repping beaucoup wasted talent, labored tale of blood feuds and bitter retributions may ride Ardant’s coattails into Gallic theaters, but word-of-mouth will lead to a speedy demise.

Against her better judgment, ballsy widow Judith (Ronit Elkabetz in a scenery-chewing turn) travels from Marseilles to her homeland to attend a wedding with grown sons, Pashko (Abraham Belaga) and Ismael (Marc Ruchmann), and adolescent daughter Mira (Claire Bouanich). Despite having seen their father gunned down 10 years before (in pic’s black-and-white prologue), kids are relatively clueless about their family background.

Staying with their father’s kin, the Sikiases, in a home ruled by imperious matriarch Venera (iconic Romanian thesp Olga Tudorache), Judith’s children discover their violent legacy. They learn that on their mother’s side they belong to the fearsome Drin clan, whose ruthless patriarch ordered their father’s murder.

Meanwhile, manipulative Louppos Sikias (Tudor Aaron Istodor) tries to involve his cousins in a personal vendetta against loutish twin neighbors Damian (Andrei Aradits) and Slator (Ion Cosma). But quick-with-his-fists Pashko prefers to flirt with the seductive Ilaria (Madalina Constantin) while underwritten Ismael fades into the background. Deaf Mira (whose disability is exploited for pic’s ludicrous climax) spends her time playing chess with the twins’ aging grandfather (Ion Besoiu) and making inane comments about the scenery.

As a writer, Ardant doesn’t do her narrative any favors by failing to specify the era and place where it unfolds. The dialogue is of an unremitting cheesiness, full of dolefully intoned over-ripe lines such as “There are no girls here. Only mothers, sisters and wives.”

She also introduces such a surfeit of underdeveloped characters that it practically requires a genealogist to sort out the relationships. The family trees that precede the end credits are too little, too late.

Alternating between awkwardly choreographed group scenes of arcane rituals that call to mind cut-rate Theo Angelopoulos and conversational asides that attempt to fill in the back-story, the increasingly incoherent narrative never flows unimpeded. Clunky in every way, pic isn’t even a “so bad it’s good” guilty pleasure.

Given her celebrated thesping career, one might expect Ardant to show some skill in guiding her actors. However, the perfs range from painfully broad (Elkabetz’s over-the-top swagger, winks and wincing) to bored (normally subtle Razvan Vasilescu, given nothing to do but play the violin and glare balefully at niece Ilaria).

Shot on location in the gorgeous wilds of Transylvania, serviceable but mostly unsubtle tech credits are led by Gerard de Battista’s atmospheric widescreen lensing.

Ashes and Blood

France - Romania - Portugal

  • Production: An Alfama Films (France)/ARTE France Cinema (France)/DD Prods. (France)/Hirsch (France)/Libra Film (Romania)/Clap Films (Portugal) production with the participation of Centre National de la Cinematographie, Canal Plus, CineCinema, CNC, RTP. (International sales: Alfama Films, Paris.) Produced by Paulo Branco. Executive producers, Paulo Branco, Tudor Giurgiu. Co-producer, Tudor Giurgiu. Directed, written by Fanny Ardant.
  • Crew: Camera (B&W/color), Gerard de Battista; editor, Celia Lafitedupont; music, David Moreau; production designer, Isabel Branco; sound (Dolby Digital), Pierre Tucat, Melissa Petitjean. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings), May 21, 2009. Running time: 105 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Ronit Elkabetz, Abraham Belaga, Marc Ruchmann, Claire Bouanich, Olga Tudorache, Ion Besoiu, Tudor Aaron Istodor, Madalina Constantin, Razvan Vasilescu, Andrea Aradits, Ion Cosma.
  • Music By: