A film prone to cutting on an unfallen tear, “From the Land of the Moon” from French director Nicole Garcia is as syrupy a confection as ever dripped from the pen of Nicholas Sparks (though inspired by the novel “Mal di Pietre” by Milena Angus). Given a gloss of respectability by the tastefulness of Garcia’s style, the genteel photography from Christophe Beaucarne, an unobjectionable score from Daniel Pemberton and a performance of tremulous commitment from Marion Cotillard (as per), as well as by its ineffable Frenchness, that last quality might be enough to bring those who equate “French” with “artistic” to the yard. But even they may find themselves choking on this bonbon during a credibility-assassinating final act reveal.
Cotillard plays Gabrielle, who at the film’s opening is a (slightly unconvincingly) young woman in rural France, nursing a wild crush on the local village schoolteacher — understandable as he looks like the Athena poster version of a booksmart hunk. In a segment that acts a self-contained cautionary tale against lending books to impressionable girls, especially when the book is “Wuthering Heights” — hello, signals — Gabrielle flings herself at him in front of his pregnant wife and her own unloving mother, only to be rejected, and to flee through the nearby forest in response.
This forest-fleeing is such representative behavior on the part of the tempestuously emotional Gabrielle that the scene is repeated more or less verbatim later on, following another rejection from another hunk. By this time, Gabrielle, under threat of the loony bin otherwise, has married Jose (an understatedly sympathetic Alex Brendemühl), a saturnine Spanish bricklayer first approached for the role of Gabrielle’s husband by her mother, who is anxious to get her off her hands, believing her troubled daughter “needs a man.”
Gabrielle would agree with that, but Jose is not the man she thinks she needs. That spot is taken by the story’s other dreamboat: the obviously named Andre Sauvage (Louis Garrel bringing strong “brood” game). He’s a lieutenant in the French army sent to the same spa/sanitarium in which Gabrielle is recovering from a kidney stone ailment (the film’s title in French is “Mal de Pierres,” literally meaning “evil stones” the French term for this illness), and he ticks every nonsense box on the fantasy-man checklist. He’s handsome; he’s dying; he’s isolated; he’s in great pain — his ripped body constantly contorted into Caravaggian attitudes of suffering amid tousled bedclothes. He has a snazzy uniform in the closet. He plays the piano.
Their brief amour fou, and his promise that he will send for her, become the defining events of Gabrielle’s life. But, back with the superhumanly long-suffering Jose, months pass without hearing from him, and Gabrielle gives birth to a son, Marc. The months stretch into years, and Marc grows into a promising young pianist.
Most disappointing, perhaps, is that at the outset it seems like the film might be about sex. We even get a quick glimpse of pubic hair and a clever scene in which, on discovering that according to their no-sex arrangement, Jose pays prostitutes in Toulon 200 francs, Gabrielle finally offers herself to him at the same price — a slyly over-literal interpretation of the old “a wife should be a whore in the bedroom” adage. (Also: petition to get “going to Toulon” declared an official euphemism for “visiting a prostitute”). But “Moon” is not about sex, nor even about love; it’s about Grand Passion (“the principle thing” as Gabrielle mystifyingly dubs it in her prayers) and Garcia’s few edgy, explorative instincts soon give way to a far more decorous and far less interesting evocation of “exquisite” emotional suffering.
Of course, Cotillard is your first call if you want an actress to suffer exquisitely, but the issue is her character Gabrielle is essentially a nightmare of self-involvement, whose emotional torture is very difficult to get invested in since she herself has already bought all the shares. And really, that is all there is to her — not a particularly affectionate or engaged mother to Marc, a frosty wife to Jose and with no discernible outside interests or skills, Gabrielle evidently has but one ambition in life, to experience a grand folie a deux-style love affair. Which might on the one hand make her admirably single-minded, but it also makes her quite perfectly boring.
Garcia, like many actors-cum-helmers has a fairly good track record of directing her actors to strong performances (Catherine Deneuve in “Place Vendome,” for example, or Daniel Auteuil in “The Adversary”). But Cotillard is given nothing else to do here except alternate reproachful glares with wan sighs and deliver delicate lines like, “You have slender hands,” in such a way that we all understand they’re code for, “Take me, and take me now.” And even that might be enough (such is the magnetism of Cotillard) were it not for the final indignity of an ending which betrays not only the audience, and Gabrielle, but also the film’s initially progressive inclination to explore the self-actualization process of a woman repressed by a loveless marriage and the social mores of 1950s France. Instead we get this borderline pastiche of the French romantic melodrama, that might more accurately be titled “From The Land of The Moon-Eyed” until that risible final act twist that jeopardizes its purchase on the romantic imagination of even the most sentimental viewer.