Director: Frank van Passel. Bel-UK-Neth-Lux. 2002. 119mins
Selected as Best Feature at the recent Hollywood Film Festival and a triple nominee at the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA) later this month, Villa Des Roses is finally beginning to generate the kind of modest heat that could secure it a welcome in sophisticated arthouse markets. The long-awaited second feature from Belgian director Frank Van Passel is a visually striking, emotionally uneven period romance with an accomplished multi-national cast. Strong critical support will be required if it is to make its mark in international territories and that has not been forthcoming thus far. It opened in the UK on Oct 11 to generally mixed reviews and paltry box office takings of $4,380 from an eight-screen release.
Much admired for his debut feature, the oddball romance Manneken Pis (1994), Van Passel's follow-up retains the same bittersweet whimsicality as he tackles an adaptation of the classic novel by Flemish writer Willem Elsschot. Avoiding the stifling prettiness of the Laura Ashley school of period drama, Villa Des Roses seems to have taken its inspiration from Delicatessen and the world of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. Its vision of Paris in 1913 is one of gloomy cobbled streets, darkness and decay whilst the dilapidated boarding house at the centre of the story is a crumbling, neglected edifice that mirrors an ailing continent on the brink of war.
Alabaster pale, Julie Delpy plays Louise, a widowed young woman employed as the new maid at the Villa Des Roses. Constantly poised on the brink of financial ruin, expatriate English owners Hugh (West) and Olive Burrell (Walter) regard the establishment as a little corner of home in the heart of Paris - only English is spoken on the premises and the guest list is a mixture of the elderly, the eccentric and the penniless.
Lonely, vulnerable and hopelessly romantic, Louise is instantly smitten by German artist Richard Grunewald (Dingwall) who boards there. The core of the film is the thwarted romance that blossoms between them. Honest, decent and truthful, Louise's virtues form a perfect balance to the callous, deceitful nature that Grunewald reveals as he betrays their love and breaks her heart.
Quite beautiful at times, the film eschews realism for a studio-bound artificiality. Expressionistic touches catch the eye and twinkling, panoramic daguerreotypes of Paris set the scene and establish the passage of time. Unfortunately, the film is less assured in establishing what passes between Louise and Richard as a great, tragic romance. Perhaps it is the lack of chemistry between the actors or the fact that Dingwall is lumbered with a German accent, but the audience are rarely convinced that this has been a defining moment in his emotional development or that he would ultimately acknowledge the error of his ways in a grand, heroic gesture.
Despite such misgivings, Villa Des Roses remains absorbing, diverting cinema and is enlivened no end by a strong supporting cast. Of note is BIFA Best Actress Nominee Shirley Henderson as the cynical, straight-talking cook Ella, who has all the best lines and delivers them with a wonderfully sour aplomb.
Prod co: Favourite Films, Dan Films, Isabella Films, Samsa Film
UK dist: Miracle Communications
Int'l sales: Electric Dog & Bear
Prods: Dirk Impens, Rudy Verzyck
Co-prods: Julie Baines, Els Vandervorst, Jani Thiltges
Assoc prods: Wilfried Depeweg, Jason Newmark, Claude Warringo
Scr: Christophe Dirickx based on the novel by Willem Elsschot
Cinematography: Jan Vancaille
Prod des: Wim Klewais
Eds: Ludo Troch, Karin Vaerenberg
Music: Paul M Van Brugge
Main cast: Julie Delpy, Shaun Dingwall, Shirley Henderson, Harriet Walter, Timothy West, Frank Vercruyssen