A young girl vies with the family dog for her mother’s attention in this off-kilter family drama
Dir: Jasmine Trinca. Italy/France. 2022. 93 mins
A dark but playful loss and love fable about a young girl’s struggles to wrest her mother’s attentions from her pet dog onto herself, on paper Marcel! sounds like pure whimsy. And whimsical it indeed is, but it’s also more than that. Italian actress Jasmine Trinca’s feature debut, a Special Screening in Cannes, carefully and lovingly blends different tropes into a distinctive and often engaging part-real, part-fantasy world. Festival audiences will enjoy Trinca’s delicate, well-observed homage to mime, to silent film, and to Rome in summertime.
Everyone in Marcel! looks off kilter: apart from the mother and the daughter, this is basically a Fellini-esque gallery of grotesques and eccentrics
As in Trinca’s prize-winning 2020 short, also featuring Alba Rohrwacher and Maayane Conti as a mother and daughter, the action unspools in an unnamed but thoroughly picturesque Roman neighbourhood, where the palazzi are spacious, rambling and colourful, and the sounds of running water and birdsong are never far away.
The characters are also unnamed: the mostly silent daughter (Conti) lives with her performance artist mother (Rohrwacher), clearly unstable and also mostly silent, who ekes out a precarious living doing street theatre to handfuls of onlookers with her rather cute pet dog, Marcel (presumably named after the French mime, Marceau). The canine appears to entirely have supplanted the daughter in her mother’s affections, and the lack of food in the fridge is just the tip of the abandonment iceberg.
Meanwhile, across the way, grandmother (Giovanna Ralli, looking not unlike the later Sophia Loren, in one of the film’s many homages to the performing arts), monomaniacally yearns for her dead son. Presumably he is the daughter’s father, under whose portrait the daughter, who is also an insomniac, tries unsuccessfully to sleep.
‘We owe our life to art,’ the mother reminds her, but it’s not much of a life for her daughter. Effectively lacking both father and mother, she wanders around the neighbourhood encountering rejection at every turn apart, inevitably, from the attentions of a bespectacled local boy in whom she is not interested. Like so many fairy tales, it’s all rather bleak, despite the moments of delightful visual wit that punctuate proceedings; at one point, for example, the portrait of the daughter’s father turns into one of an ugly great aunt with whom the grandmother is comparing her.
During one of the mother’s histrionic and physically demanding street performances, which tend to drag on too long, Marcel goes missing: that exclamation mark in the title is the sound of the prostrate mother desperately calling his name. And then, one dark and stormy night, the daughter finds the shivering pooch…
Everyone in Marcel! looks off kilter: apart from the mother and the daughter, this is basically a Fellini-esque gallery of grotesques and eccentrics, with Dario Cantarelli perhaps taking top honours as both a flower-wielding suitor to the mother and a funeral director. The offbeat, beautiful features of both Rohrwacher and Conti seem to have been tailor made for roles which are self-consciously theatrical, with both communicating their own particular tragedy — Conti as the blank-faced victim who numbly accepts her fate until she one day explodes, Rohrwacher as the performer whose personal grief has led her to tragically blur the distinctions between art and life.
Matti Bye’s score is full of appropriately plangent piano: the musical selection is wide-ranging, with Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s 1980 hit ‘Enola Gay’ being one of the more memorable picks. Visually too, Marcel! is rarely less than memorable, with Daria D’Antonio shuttling between comically flat depictions of extraordinary moments and self-consciously heightened use of unusual angles.
If Marcel! can be criticised, it is for losing its way plot wise after the 45-minute mark, with the visit of mother and daughter to the mansion of the mother’s cruel and haughty cousin (Valentina Cervi). These scenes are heavy going and self-indulgent, though things do pick up again over the home stretch, with its beautifully handled reveal. Also on the downside, the narrative is broken up into ten chapters of varying length, each bearing a mysterious, and often incomprehensible, epigraph. If Marcel!’s whimsy can be accused of spilling over into mere pretentiousness, it’s here.
Production companies: Cinemaundici, Totem Atelier, Rai Cinema
International sales: Totem Films firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Olivia Musini, Bérénice Vincent, Laure Parleani
Screenplay: Francisca Manieri, Jasmine Trinca
Production design: Ilaria Sadun
Editing: Chiara Russo
Cinematography: Daria D’Antonio
Music: Matti Bye
Main cast: Alba Rohrwacher, Maayane Conti, Giovanna Ralli, Umberto Orsini, Dario Cantarelli