Dir: Christophe Honore. France. 2002. 105mins.

A patchily promising first feature from writer turned director Christophe Honore, 17 Fois Cecile Cassard charts a woman's agonising struggle to rebuild her life after the devastating death of her husband. Told in 17 snapshots of moments that define her journey from abject misery to fragile hope, the film gains in interest and accessibility in direct relation to the character's growing sense of renewal. The first half of the film is unavoidably gloomy and depressing and will be more than most audiences are prepared to endure, suggesting its future lies in further festival exposure rather than significant theatrical sales. It would be especially suited to events that champion the work of intriguing new directorial talents.

Those who do have the patience to stay with the film may concede that the sombre mood and inertia of the initial scenes is essential to the director's overall vision of a story that begins with Beatrice Dalle's Cecile completely overwhelmed by grief. Unable to cope with the daily routine of life, she is a lost soul who can offer no comfort to her little boy. In the early stages of the film, Honore is content merely to observe her misery as she walks the streets, eats in grim solitude or just sits in her flat. Shrouded in darkness and shadow, those scenes have a ponderous, painful quality that makes for particularly demanding viewing.

Deciding that she has nothing left to offer her son, she leaves him with a friend and travels through the night, stopping in Toulouse. She develops an attachment to two youths and even finds a friend in Mathieu (Duris), a gay man whose appetite for life and romance penetrates even her defences. Slowly, she lets the light back into her life, acknowledging that unhappiness is not an essential part of her nature and struggling for the right to embrace the warmth of life.

Crisply photographed with an attractive musical score, the film impresses in random moments that are more to do with capturing the essence of an emotion than telling a story. An impromptu, after hour's dance in a hotel lobby becomes an expression of desire. Stumbling through the night by the banks of the river, Cecile observes the passion of men having sex with men and is awakened to her own longings. Open to accusations that the film is entirely too literary in character and lugubrious in its execution, scenes like these confirm that Honore has the instincts of a film-maker as well as the talents of a writer. More experience could gain him the fluidity and clarity that would open his work to a wider audience.

Pale and cadaverous, Beatrice Dalle is well cast as the essentially passive Cecile and even seems to have physically changed, assuming a healthier glow, by the time her character looks towards the sunshine and finally breaks into a broad, beaming smile. It is one of her best performances since her unforgettable appearance in Jean-Jacques Beineix's Betty Blue.

Prod co: Sepia
Int'l sales:
Philippe Jacquier, Beatrice Mauduit
Remy Chevrin
Prod des:
Laurent Allaire
Chantal Hymans
Alex Beaupain
Main cast:
Beatrice Dalle, Romain Duris, Jeanne Balibar, Ange Ruze, Johan Oderio-Robles