Born five years after Helen Keller in Vertou, France, Marie Heurtin faced many of the same challenges, growing up deaf and blind in a society whose instinct was to institutionalize such girls. “Marie’s Story,” therefore, is not so different from Keller’s, amounting to a French “Miracle Worker” with the bonus miracle that it was a nun who accomplished the inspirational breakthrough. Acquired by Film Movement in advance of its Locarno Film Festival premiere, this compelling 19th-century drama offers slight but satisfying variations on one of American drama’s best-loved tales, spelling awards heft abroad and sleeper potential Stateside.
Whereas every American child knows how Keller learned to communicate, thanks to her autobiography and the 1962 film, Heurtin’s story isn’t widely known in France — nor is the unfortunate meme of off-color jokes schoolchildren make concerning Keller’s twin handicaps. That should make for a relatively pure viewing experience abroad, where this traditionally plotted tearjerker won’t seem so familiar to audiences of all ages. In the U.S., meanwhile, there’s still the question of what word will inspire Heurtin’s breakthrough, the way “water” did for Keller.
The more immediate reference for Gallic viewers will be Francois Truffaut’s “The Wild Child,” which deals with the taming of a feral kid found living alone in the woods. Played by convincingly brutish newcomer Ariana Rivoire, Marie is 14 years old when she arrives at the nun-run Larnay Institute, a convent in Poitiers where deaf girls — and those with various other ailments — are routinely left by their parents to learn sign language and become sisters. Filthy, disheveled and understandably terrified, Marie runs from these strangers and climbs the nearest tree, from which mild-mannered Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carre) is chosen to bring her down.
Though not deaf herself, Marguerite has a vision of how she might be able to help Marie, hypothesizing that if she can adapt sign language in such a way that Marie can feel the words, the girl will be able to understand their significance. In practice, Marguerite’s plan proves harder than she expected, since Marie thrashes violently around anyone other than her parents and clutches a potentially dangerous pocket knife (her favorite possession) more tightly than most girls would their dolls. Add to this the convent’s stereotypically stern Mother Superior character (Brigitte Catillon, in stiff-spined Maggie Smith mode), who skeptically yields to Marguerite’s obstinacy, but worries that the challenge will threaten her already delicate health.
Though Marguerite’s mortality becomes a major focus of the film’s last act, director Jean-Pierre Ameris spares audiences the Hollywood approach of telegraphing a terminal illness by a gradually worsening cough, as so brilliantly parodied by Alec Baldwin in the “Mastering the Art of Foreshadowing Your Character’s Death” sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” Instead, the script remains resolutely focused on Marie’s slow transformation, including such feel-good milestones as brushing her hair, giving herself a bath and trading her soiled dress for a cleanly pressed school uniform. Only after the point that Marie grasps the concept of language does the story return to Marguerite’s condition, skipping over most of the reading, writing and signing lessons to depict the key moment when the terminally ill nun tries to explain such abstract concepts as death, heaven and God.
At the risk of sounding crass, Marguerite takes a taxingly long time to succumb, while Ameris and co-writer Philippe Blasband try to engineer the most wrenching climax possible. Still, some of the pic’s best moments occur in this final stretch, including an unexpectedly frank exchange with the Mother Superior in which she admits no amount of faith makes dying easy, and a second breakthrough with Marie, where she comes to understand the concept of music by pressing herself up against a piano. Until this moment, the pic’s low-key score has been kept to an absolute minimum — part of an intuitively conceptual sound design that grows gradually more robust as Marie’s sensory awareness expands. Early on, she experiences the world by touch, absorbing the sun on her skin and feeling the faces of strangers with her hands. By the end, music has become part of her world, giving the film license to reinforce the sentiment with stirring strings.
A quarter-century ago, such an assured, emotionally satisfying French offering as this could have done significant business in the States, the way films like “Jean de Florette” once did. These days, foreign films tend to require either esoteric critical support or an edgy genre hook, and yet, “Marie’s Story” embodies many of the qualities that Hollywood still strives to deliver in native projects, especially as concerns leading lady Carre, who may not reach Anne Bancroft’s heights, but plays her determined character with moving obstinacy and grace.