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The cinematic rentrée in Paris is marked by the return to the screen of one of France’s great icons, Isabelle Adjani. She stars in the emotional melodrama David and Mme. Hansen, playing a wealthy psychiatric patient with a dark secret. Wearing Jackie O sunglasses and a gray (but luxuriant) wig, Adjani plays her role to the hilt, but also gives it surprising depth.
David and Mme. Hansen, a first-time effort written and directed by Alexandre Astier (who also plays David), is a mysterious and atmospheric psychological tale reminiscent of Patrick Modiano’s novels (like Villa Triste, which was adapted into a film). Like Modiano’s evocative stories, the film is maze-like as it wades through a tangle of emotion and memory. Despite the title, the movie is really about Mme. Hansen and her sad past, not so much about David (that’s one problem with it).
The story begins in an archetypal Swiss sanatorium. Mme. Hansen is a strange, tortured, apparently wealthy patient with a background in the arts. She keeps a drawing of a fish on her door to identify her room and when anxious, asks “Is there anybody supervising?” It’s not clear whether she’s getting better or worse. But David, a trained ergonomist unaccountably employed by the sanatorium, is given the job of taking her for an outing to buy shoes. This outing turns into a labyrinthine, half-comic, half-tragic journey that crosses the border between Switzerland and France and also the murky corridors of the past.
At first David accompanies Mme. Hansen alone. Then he’s joined by his fiancé, Clémence (Julie-Anne Roth), and her younger brother Hugo. Hugo (well-played by Victor Chambon) has his own issues: he’s been affected by the death of his father one year before (it’s now Hugo’s birthday to boot), and is torn between conventional schooling and his artistic bent. This obvious counterpoint to Mme. Hansen is what gives the film a tender and dramatic texture, since David remains tied to his professional role.
Isabelle Adjani has specialized in playing unbalanced women. Over the years she’s created a gallery of neurotics and unhinged romantics: Adele H., Camille Claudel, la Reine Margot. It’s something she knows how to do, and she brings off Mme. Hansen with panache, alternating from near-catatonic impassivity to cranky petulance. Mme. Hansen can be an exasperating character, but she’s always fascinating.
As a director, Astier is competent but still very much an actor. Fairly close shots of the characters predominate, and get a little oppressive—we breathe a sigh of relief whenever the camera pulls back. He’s less skilful choreographing action (or just having the characters go from A to B), and the editing seems telegraphed. Even the interesting things he does seem to be the interesting things of the neophyte trying something out.
The supporting cast is, well, supportive. Like some other actors-turned-directors Astier brings out the most in his people. This can be unbalanced, as we expect the vividly-played characters to play a larger role than they do But they all feel like real people. Best of all is Jean-Charles Simon as the chief of the sanatorium. His Dr. Reiner is RD Laing-ish, eccentrically pushing irrational buttons to provoke both patients and staff. We only wish that this character was more prominent in the story.
The scene moves from gorgeous Swiss mountains to Aix Les Bains, which is also lovely. We suspect, as usual with French films, that this is a matter of regional film subsidies. But we do get a sense of how being immersed in beauty, whether natural or man-made, can entrap people in idealized emotions. This could have been developed more, but Mr. Astier also shows his amateurishness as a writer. Mme. Hansen’s story is too neatly wrapped up, and lacks the bang which we hunger for. At the same time, Hugo’s narrative is left dangling—how does he resolve his feelings about his father’s death? will he dedicate himself to painting? When things get to the crisis point, David tells Hugo and his sister they’d better go home, and that’s that.
The movie has “Isabelle Adjani Vehicle” all over it, but it’s very much a showcase for the talents of Alexandre Astier. He not only directed and wrote the film, and stars as David, but even scored the moody soundtrack. He may have taken on too much. As an actor he’s assured, holding his own with Adjani (he also benefits from the writer—himself—giving him most of the lines). But his emotional register is limited to exasperation and irritation. We admire David’s stony persistence with Mme. Hansen, but he never opens up or softens, never shows vulnerability.
There is one tantalizing moment, at Mme. Hansen’s house, when he discovers that she owns a red Lamborghini. In one scene he takes Mme. Hansen for a high-speed ride, in what is part of a psychodrama to get to the root of her problem. The scene works well, as psychology and as cinema, but we feel there’s something lurking in David—a reason why the controlled ergonomist goes crazy for the Italian sports car. This entertaining and moving movie reaches its end, but we feel like saying, in the words of Portnoy’s psychiatrist, “And now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
Production: Pathé, Regular, France 3 Cinéma
Distribution: Pathé Distribution
Photo credit Pascal Chantier, courtesy of Pathé Distribution
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