There is something of a sub-industry in French filmmaking devoted to the production of films designed for an anglophone audience, possibly playing into some sort of old cultural inferiority complex. These films follow a similar formula: they are light family melodramas containing a pseudo-philosophical moral, and are filmed in a nice chateau nestled in a pretty village, with an ensemble of slightly flawed, but generally soulful people. The storylines are often uninvolved— handy, given it is so easy to be distracted by nice window shutters or chandeliers— but that’s okay, it’s French so it’s automatically profound.
I am a sucker for this type of film, as is my mother (I had her at Catherine Devenue apparently), and so glasses of chardonnay in hand we went along to Claire Darling, the latest film from director Julie Bertuccelli.
It is necessary to say from the outset that I did not expect the film to fall into this category for two reasons. Firstly, the film’s premise sounded extremely intriguing: Claire (played by French cinema great Catherine Devenue), a reclusive widow, awakes one morning and decides to sell all her furniture and collections, declaring that she will be dead by midnight. Secondly, I greatly admired Bertuccelli’s handling of The Tree (2010), a heartwarming Australian-French production about woman struggling with the death of her husband, whilst her daughter believes that his spirit is residing in a Moreton Bay fig tree. This mother-daughter relationship and themes of memory and grief are taken up again in Claire Darling. In the first third of the film everything is handled with extreme elegance: Devenue’s brilliant performance as a shallow yet fragile eccentric, sets up a series of interwoven mysteries as the audience slowly starts to untangle the reason for her shocking decision.
Claire is an avid collector (particularly, for some reason, of terrifying clockwork dolls) and it is apparent that her house has become a mausoleum of sorts to her failed interpersonal relationships. Among these relationships is that with her estranged daughter, Marie (played by Devenue’s real-life daughter Chiara Mastrioanni), who is called to the house after an old childhood friend grows concerned about her mother’s apparent hallucinations.
Despite a promising start, the plot becomes a little confusing due a barrage of flashback scenes, some of which seem to be infuriatingly irrelevant. The younger Claire is played by Alice Taglioni, who greatly resembles a young Devenue but does not possess her incredibly expressive eyes (and much of her performance as Claire unfortunately relies on her looking surly, then sad, then sultry). There is a great deal that Claire is trying to conceal behind an outwardly elegant facade, whether it be her own cold charm or her meticulous collections. This concern with outward appearance relies on a nuanced performance to balance the character, and Taglioni, whilst beautiful and bitter by turn, doesn’t quite deliver.
In the present, however, both Devenue and Mastrioanni portray the loss and love that affects their relationship with extreme sensitivity (perhaps not so much or a surprise, given their real-life bond). The ending, though cementing the film’s moralisation of memory and materialism in the most bombastic way possible, undoes a lot of the excellent work in their performances; however, as far as eleventh-hour plot twists go, it is very satisfying.
Visually, of course, the film oozes rustic French chic, and of everything about this film my favourite things would have to be the jacket and boots worn by Chiara Mastrioanni (I have a thing for brown suede). Superficial? Yes—and probably a strange and contradictory way to relate to a film about the vacuity of materialism. By contrast, Mum— though she cites the chardonnay and lack of sleep as potential hindrances— walked out feeling extremely sentimental, which was infectious. Soon both of us were sitting over coffee, pondering mother-daughter relationships, family memories and taking French classes.
Damn you, French cinema.
Claire Darling is showing at Palace Cinemas now!