Marion Cotillard shines in this sweeping, half-successful tale of love lost and found in mid-century France
This undeniably old-fashioned latest film from French filmmaker Nicole Garcia starts fairly stodgily but then turns into something interesting, even a little unusual. The early scenes, set in a Provençal village in the 1950s, show the response of troubled teenager Gabrielle (Marion Cotillard) when the teacher she has a crush on rejects her advances. The girl, inspired by romantic literature, believes that profound, passionate love is ‘la chose principale’ – the main reason to live – and that a life without such love isn’t worth living.
Gabrielle's mother, tired of the stomach cramps she suspects are an act, persuades Jose (Alex Brendermühl), an exiled Catalan worker helping with the lavender harvest, to take her off her hands in return for being set up in business. So starts a loveless relationship which remains rocky despite Jose’s kindness and growing affection; only after a doctor’s diagnosis of Gabrielle’s condition results in six months at an Alpine sanatorium do things change, when she meets André (Louis Garrel), a seriously ill veteran of the war in Indochina.
If this sounds to you like a conventional sweeping romance, you’d only be partly right. The film’s French title – 'Mal de Pierres', alluding to the kidney stones causing Gabrielle’s cramps – is more evocative than the English of its slightly detached, even clinical tone. As played predictably well by Cotillard, Gabrielle is not an entirely sympathetic character; she’s stubbornly unrealistic in her aspirations, a touch self-centred and unappreciative of Jose’s support and understanding.
This is literally a tale of amour fou – loving the ideal of love, rather than an individual – and so Gabrielle is driven to distraction. Crucially, Garcia respects her dreams and desires, which are at odds with the mores of the time, but she doesn't romanticise the woman. The result, despite an uncertain start, is in the end a surprisingly intriguing and affecting movie.