Sunday, July 10, 2016

Taboo time: Valérie Donzelli's compelling look at brother/sister love, MARGUERITE & JULIEN

What an interesting career has had French filmmaker Valérie Donzelli. I first caught her work at the FSLC's Rendez-vous With French Cinema some years back, when her charming and psychologically very-smart rom-com, The Queen of Hearts made its New York debut. The next thing I saw from her was the even more compelling (but, for my money, not quite as successful Declaration of War). Now comes her most dangerous (and maybe her most interesting) movie, MARGUERITE & JULIEN, which tackles, in a riot of seemingly differing time frames, the still taboo topic of a brother-sister love that goes, yes, all the way.

Love has been central to all of Ms Donzelli's work (the filmmaker is shown at right). In her first, a young woman keeps falling for man after man, each of whom is played in charming disguise by the same actor, Donzelli's seemingly constant collaborator, Jérémie Elkaïm (below). In Declaration of War, that love is directed at the couple's child, who comes down with a brain tumor, and the pair does everything in its power to save the kid. Now, in her latest work, that love has gone big-time rogue. As opposed to her "War" film, in which you can do just about anything for love of your young child and audiences will cheer your every move, here her lovers go up against the entire society -- church, state, family and the bourgeoisie -- yet are determined to have what they want and need despite the costs.

We've seen incest themes previously, of course, but one thing that makes Donzelli's version different is her use of time period. As the end titles roll, we learn that the film is based on an actual pair of lovers from the 1600s. And indeed, the movie, costume- and set-wise, appears to begins in perhaps the 1800s. But then, as it moves along, we find ourselves watching automobiles andclothes from the 1930 and 1950s, and finally modern-day helicopters chase our pair of lovers across the terrain.

All this is done so fleetingly and off-handedly, however, that it doesn't knock us in the teeth. And, yes, it adds to the film a subtle but timeless quality while simultan-eously making us understand how little has changed regarding this subject over the centuries. And I don't believe that Donzelli is waving her own kind of pro-incest rainbow flag. She makes certain we see and understand the bill to be paid for trespassing.

What does keep us and the movie centered are the two lead performances from M. Elkaïm and Anaïs Demoustier (above, and most recently of Bird People and The New Girlfriend), who plays his sister/lover. The two are strong performers under most circumstances; here, their strength is especially necessary. Elkaïm broods with the best of the French actors, while Demoustier uses her quiet demeanor and plainspoken strength as a force to finally be reckoned with.

Has brother/sister sexual desire have more to do with our DNA than we've so far been told? Is it somehow a product of lax parenting? A psychological defect? Or maybe something that someday society may be better able to comprehend and deal with? I don't know, and neither, it seems, does Donzelli. But she has given us a movie that, about as amour fou as it gets, simply shows us that it continues to exist -- strangely and powerfully. From IFC Films, after a very limited theatrical release, the movie makes its DVDebut this Tuesday, July 12 -- for purchase and/or rental.

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