Marguerite & Julien: Crime and punishment for Valérie Donzelli
by Fabien Lemercier
- CANNES 2015: A Bonnie and Clyde story of the incestuous love between two siblings at the beginning of the 17th century, told as a post-modern, anachronistic tale that misses the mark
Valérie Donzelli, a stylistically very adventurous filmmaker, has unveiled Marguerite & Julien [+see also:
film profile] in competition at the 68th Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, this film bears the hallmarks of a failed experiment, not because of a lack of ingredients, but because of a flawed vision that was prematurely disastrous in its ambition to come up with an innovative recipe. Scrounging around for an original take on the story of passionate and incestuous love between Marguerite (Anaïs Demoustier) and Julien (Jérémie Elkaïm) de Ravalet, two siblings who were burnt to death for their crime in France in 1603, which inspired a screenplay written in 1971 by Jean Gruault for François Truffaut, the filmmaker sinks into a totally off-the-wall narrative that attempts to toy with anachronisms (for example, “a very long time ago” followed by a helicopter scene at the very start of the film). The movie is riddled with cinematic and literary references (readings, exchanges of letters), and all kinds of effects which, if taken separately, could be considered good ideas, but they never come together as a whole, despite invoking a playful game revolving around relationships.
Written by the director together with Jérémie Elkaïm, based on the work by Gruault, the story kicks off with the privileged childhood of the two protagonists in their castle of Tourlaville, not far from Valognes (see Barbey d’Aurevilly and her provocative novels). Recounted by a female narrator to a room full of very young girls, the tale sees Marguerite and Julien swearing eternal love to each other during small family plays (with “Oh My Love” playing on the soundtrack), which plants an idea in the head of their ecclesiastical great-uncle, who recommends their separation. They quickly get carried away with the affair (with a real horse for emphasis) and as “it is time to learn to behave as serious citizens of the world”, Julien and the younger brother are sent to study elsewhere and then travel through Europe in the years that follow. Despite Julien’s “moral” resistance, once they return, the passion is rekindled, but this time between two young adults. High society suspects the worst (though they have not yet consummated their love) and Marguerite is married off to a frustrated and menacing man whom she rejects until the day Julien helps her escape and carnal love consumes the two lovers. Marguerite’s husband prosecutes them, and the two siblings run away with the help of their mother (the servants also tend to be on their side). Searched for and hunted down by the police, they try to reach England because Marguerite is pregnant and incest is punishable by death…
Weighed down by the initial childhood section, like mayonnaise that won't set, Marguerite & Julien tries to salvage what it can, but its bias towards detachment does too much to-ing and fro-ing between theatrical fantasy and libertarian romantic melodrama, to the point that its daringness doesn’t follow through and sinks like the stones that Marguerite loves to skim in the film. Perhaps that will be enough to satisfy the filmmaker (and her associate co-screenwriter and actor) who, like the characters, decries the transgression she knows receives capital punishment in a conformist society. But does passion, no matter how exhilarating and natural, justify all the mistakes?
(Translated from French)