Dir. Safy Nebbou. 2008. France. 95 min.
The payoff is slow in coming but packs a punch in Mark Of An Angel, a tense drama that gives two of France's finest actresses roles to sink their teeth into. Catherine Frot - opposite Sandrine Bonnaire - plays a woman who finds herself stalking another family once she catches a glimpse of their young daughter.
A psychological duel that seems to meander but is, in fact, always on course, co-writer/director Safy Nebbou's second feature should find a welcome in art houses beyond France - this is one which will reward patient audiences.
Pharmacy clerk Elsa (Frot) is in mid-divorce after 12 years of marriage and fighting for fulltime custody of her well-adjusted son, Thomas (Whitehead). Husband Antoine (Chappey) says the judge will take her 'background' into account, the first hint that Elsa has been subject to emotional instability.
When picking up Thomas from a birthday party, Elsa is riveted by the sight of a pretty little girl who seems to be six or seven years old.
Telling little white lies to her pregnant co-worker, Laurence (Quinton), her boss and her parents (Aumont, Moretti), Elsa frees up the time she needs to track down the girl's family and insinuate herself into the periphery of their lives.
Their spacious modern home in the Paris suburbs is for sale. Elsa claims to be house-hunting and gets a tour from housewife Claire (Bonnaire) who hopes to find a buyer in the coming month as her husband Bernard (Yordanoff) has accepted a three-year job in Montreal. Although Elsa at first seems a little odd, but harmless, Claire eventually asks her to keep her distance. But Elsa refuses to back off. In the face of increasingly bold and unreasonable behaviour - she is convinced that she is inextricably linked to the young girl - Elsa's loved ones believe her to be coming unhinged.
Inspired by a true story, this is the sort of tale whose secrets must not be given away by an overly emphatic trailer or careless reviews, lest the air go out of the proceedings.
The film sustains a jittery aura of unease although it is made up mostly of fairly ordinary components: dropping off children at school and picking them up after class, family meals, swimming, ice skating, shopping, driving.
And yet, the banality gives way to the kind of emotional urgency that leads to verbal snapping and cat fights.
From the opening sequence in which Elsa, in her car, witnesses firemen tackling a burning building at a smoke-engulfed intersection, Nebbou fills the widescreen frame with unnerving details grounded in daily reality. Hugues Tabar-Nouval's instrumental score, abetted by subtle sound design, bolsters the ambient doubt and discomfort. Fascinating ethical questions give the film its residual power.
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Arthur Vaughan Whitehead