In “The Elephant and the Butterfly,” Antoine (Thomas Blanchard), mild and bearded, with a look of telegraphed regret, shows up at the home of his former partner, Camille (Judith Chemla), to ask how she’s doing. She laughs in his face, just about choking on her sarcastic chuckles. These two haven’t seen each other in five years, and she, for one, is fluent in the harsher dialect of post-divorce (that is, barely disguised loathing). Since they have a young daughter, Elsa (Lina Doillon), who lives with her mother, we’re curious to see how the hostility will play out.
An odd fact is then revealed. Elsa, who is five, has no idea who Antoine is. But her long stare follows him out the window, with a look that says, “There’s something about him…”
There are, of course, middle-class fathers who’ve never gotten to know their children — or, more accurately, have abandoned them. It happens every day. But Antoine, in his 40-year-old-geek-in-a-leather-jacket way, doesn’t strike you as that kind of dude. He’s too sensitive and doleful, an aging bourgeois puppy. That makes this set-up a bit of a set-up. It feels contrived and vaguely off-kilter — and, in fact, what happened between Antoine and Camille is never explained. Neither is the fact that he has shown no interest in his daughter. “The Elephant and the Butterfly” is a movie too cool-headed and present tense for backstory.
It was produced by the Dardenne brothers (with Martin Scorsese serving as one of its executive producers), and the writer-director, Amélie van Emblt, does a touchy-feely knockoff of the Dardenne style — lots of naturalistic meandering, all coalescing (in this case) around a melting heart. She has made the Belgian version of a high-concept movie: Derelict nice guy gets to know his daughter, and learns how much he wants to be a daddy. It’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” with only one Kramer.
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Antoine ends up looking after Elsa when Camille and her partner — whom the girl does think of as daddy — rush off on a trip, with their babysitter a no-show. Antoine is recruited to stay on with Elsa until the babysitter arrives, but instead he grabs the reins and takes her under his wing for a few days.
It’s a learning curve. At first he’s all thumbs, spilling the groceries, awkwardly washing off Elsa after a painting session. But then he takes her over to his flat, which houses a veritable herb garden. He is, as it happens, a professional chef, and he cooks her a meal full of fish and flavor; we can see his nurturing spirit in the way he prepares that food. (The film should have done more with his cuisine.) Elsa is a dream of a five-year-old, avid and calm and curious and smartly behaved, but she stops short of being idealized, and Lina Doillon’s performance is the most authentic thing in the movie. She doesn’t whip off cute-smart lines — she acts like a real kid, which is to say that she’s more observant, and vulnerable, than Antoine realizes.
They hang out, in scene after scene, and that — infused with a dry-bones Dardenne flavor — is the theme of “The Elephant and the Butterfly”: that the cosmic secret of parenthood isn’t anything more (or less) than being present. Listening to what your kid wants and needs. Antoine has a way of leaving Elsa alone in cars, as if she’d be perfectly safe there, and that’s an indication of how removed he is from the primal drive of parenting. He lacks the protective impulse.
Yet he’s taking baby steps, and we do it along with him. The film gets the audience to be present, too. A couple of days in, Antoine drives Elsa to the beach, where she wants to rent the “ugly” quadracycle with the unicorn; he thinks she should pick a better one. Moments later, they’re riding the ugly one, and it’s a touching moment, because he’s discovering the essence of the joy — not imposing his “good taste” on his daughter, but listening to who she is.
All trés sweet, and as a father with a five-year-old daughter, I know what it is to work each day to connect to the mysteries of hanging out, of just being. But it’s not so easy for a movie to get by on that, especially when it’s rigged to be the story of a daddy who couldn’t have cared less, until he cares entirely. “The Elephant and the Butterfly” has a chance to find a modest audience, but it says something about the film that it’s impossible to watch without imagining the even moister American remake.