Thursday, March 1, 2018

Isabelle Huppert as you've seldom seen her -- in Bavo Defurne's luscious, near-camp melodrama, SOUVENIR

The opening credit sequence is to die for: A simply gorgeous, hand-drawn typeface, telling us the who and what, is surrounded by white bubbles that move sensuously in, out and over a golden background. It's lovely and hypnotic, until it suddenly ends -- with a delightfully witty touch. I was hooked from that sequence onwards, and I hadn't yet even seen the movie's star, Isabelle Huppert. We do soon enough, and -- oh, dear -- one of the world's great cinema actresses is... almost mousy and plain, taking us back perhaps to the time of The Lacemaker. (The actress doesn't look all that much older, either, which is a little frightening at times.)

Directed and co-written (with Jacques Boon and Yves Verbraeken) by Bavo Defurne, who gave us the lovely little North Sea Texas a few years back, SOUVENIR is a kind of almost-fantasy-rom-com-drama about a May-September relationship involving a young, would-be boxer and an ex- (and once somewhat famous) singer who has dropped completely off the celebrity map and disappeared into a oddball, 9-to-5 job (or however long daily employment now lasts in Belgium) in a factory that manufacturers very large portions of -- yes -- paté!

If this sounds just a bit like unintentional camp, and at times it plays as such, the movie is generally much better than that -- thanks to its two stars -- Ms Huppert (above, right, and below) and Kévin Azaïs (above left) -- and to director Defurne's absolute commitment to his tale and the telling of it. (Douglas Sirk and Ross Hunter, I suspect, would have applauded.)

The filmmaker gives us plenty of detail regarding his protagonists lives -- in the workplace, at home with family, and past history, too. It turns out that the Azaïs character's father (Jan Hammenecker, below, right) as a young man, was as smitten with Huppert's Liliane as his son turns out to be now (much to his wife's displeasure, then and currently).

Souvenir covers a lot of ground -- past and present -- as it tells its surprising tale, which gives Ms Huppert the chance to become a full-fledged chanteuse, which she does every bit as well as she has done everything else in her screen career. Initially, her character seems oddly out of time and sync (well, she was a near star decades ago), but Huppert draws you in, as she always does, and the movie-maker has given her a couple of swell songs to sing, which she handles with rather startling style and aplomb.

The latter of these is just about good enough to have you believing that it might become a hit (which it very well may have been in Europe). It's both catchy and quirky and by the second time you hear it, it's already bonding to your brain. And the section devoted to one of those typical and ridiculous television "talent" shows is both as believable and stupid as these shows always seem to be.

Defurne is a romantic, for sure, yet how he handles the love story, along with the age difference between the protagonists, is sure-footed and believable. Motives are neither simplified nor characterizations single note. Ego, desire, vanity and the need for success -- along with the "love stuff" -- are all part of picture here.

Finally, though, it is that love stuff that resonates most strongly. The ending, in particular, is handled with simplicity and subtlety. We don't get the chance to see Ms Huppert do this kind of thing or appear in this kind of movie very often. If you're a fan, you won't want to miss Souvenir. And if you're not, or if you don't yet know this actress' work, this is an atypical but probably rather fun place to begin (or rethink) your education.

From Strand Releasing and running just 90 minutes, the film opens this Friday, March 2, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and on Friday, March 16, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center. Souvenir is scheduled to play a few more cities around the country, too. Here in South Florida it opens at the Bill Cosford Cinema on March 23. Click here and then click on Screenings to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

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