Dir: Laure Duthilleul.Fr. 2004. 94mins.
The complaint isfrequently made that the French production system too often allows film-makersto please themselves rather than justify their intentions to an audience. Thisis a charge unfortunately born out by Nelly, a small, eccentric dramathat was clearly a labour of love for director Laure Duthilleul, but that neverbegins to make its wider raison d'être apparent.
Ostensibly a study ofbereavement, the film features a lead turn by Sophie Marceau that will enhanceits box-office prospects at home - where it is released early next year - butoverall Nelly is too slender and parochial to have much of a marketprospect elsewhere, and its decidedly soft touch will surely hamper itsfestival fortunes. The film played in Un Certain Regard at Cannes.
Set in a visually fetchingautumn in a French village, the story involves Nelly (Marceau), the villagenurse and wife of the local doctor, who one day sleeps in late and never getsup. His death is unexplained but may be partly symbolic as the couple'smarriage, we learn, has already died.
Nelly reacts eccentrically,at first petulantly berating confused patients, then refusing to allow theundertakers to remove the body. Fortunately, the dead man's brother Jose(Chappey) is a carpenter, and sets about building a customised coffin; thedeath also seems well-timed for him and Nelly to consider what seems along-simmering romance.
Eventually, after severalmoody walks alone in the woods, Nelly tries to drown herself. Recovering inhospital, she sneaks home in a stolen ambulance to find reconciliation in astartlingly bathetic feelgood ending.
A first feature directed andco-wrritten by Laure Duthilleul - previously an actor in films by Claude Berri,Manuel Poirier and Robert Kramer - the film is very much a vehicle for Marceau,its determinedly arty tenor marking a signal departure from her usualhigh-profile commercial work. But Marceau is incapable of fleshing out acharacter who remains largely opaque, and who comes across as capricious andself-absorbed. Nelly's main response to widowhood is to explode into arepertoire of sulks and tics, which Marceau conveys in an abrasively manneristfashion.
The fragmented narrativebarely gives us a chance to grasp the relationships between the variouscharacters, nor to be quite certain who some of them are: the deceased's sister(Hesme), for example, flies in from Guadeloupe late in the film, bonds withMarceau, then promptly drops out of the picture.
As the brother-in-law andlover-in-waiting, the dependable Antoine Chappey never gets a chance to be morethan solidly careworn. The three children (Auzier, Capelier, Lubat) are anoccasional charming presence but treated quite sentimentally, and we neverbegin to believe in them and Nelly as a family.
Caught between melancholyand whimsy, Nelly never finds its appropriate tone and comes across asartsy - in a dated, precious way - rather than genuinely having a vision of itsown. The camerawork is generally accomplished, but occasional trick shots -from the point of view of a dog or a pigeon - are mawkish, and the film makesover-emphatic use of a textured but tricksy score.
Prod cos: Marie Amelie Production, Studio Canal
Fr dist: Pan-Europeenne
Int'l sales: MGI International
Prods: Denise Petitdidier
Scr: Laure Duthilleul, Jean-PolFargeau, Pierre Erwan Guillaume
Cine: Christophe Offenstein
Prod des: Alain Tchillinguirian
Ed: Catherine Quesemand
Music: Franck II Louise
Main cast: Sophie Marceau,Antoine Chappey, Fabien Zenoni, Gerald Laroche, Clotilde Hesme, Pôme Auzier,Jonas Capelier, Louis Lubat